More than half of female parish priests are afraid of personal violence as they carry out their duties, a survey of five Anglican dioceses in southern England has found.

Their concerns are shared by almost two in five of their male counterparts.

The priests have good reason for their fears, according to the survey by the Royal Holloway college, University of London. Seven out of 10 respondents had been verbally abused, while 12 percent had been physically assaulted.

Most of the priests (67 percent) lived in suburbs rather than the inner city. The survey's authors point to "growing concern" about violence against clergy and other community-based professionals like doctors and probation officers.

Nick Tolson, who runs National Churchwatch, an advice service aimed at preventing crimes against church people and buildings, has found clergy are increasingly interested in personal safety training.

"The safety problem is particularly acute for women clergy living alone," Tolson said. "A bedraggled character knocks on her door late at night. Half of her wants to feed him and get him warm."

Clergy homes, often clearly identified as The Vicarage or The Rectory, are obvious targets for begging approaches, which sometimes turn violent. Churches may come increasingly under attack as commercial premises and private homes become more secure.

British government statistics do not specifically identify crime against churches, but National Churchwatch contacted police forces throughout England and Wales. From the replies of 26 forces, it estimated that nationwide in 1999 there were about 460 violent attacks in places of worship. These included at least two murders.

Overall crime against churches and other places of worship, National Churchwatch estimated, ...

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