Vicars have been told not to handle weddings involving Africans and Eastern Europeans after a clergy leader revealed that 40 sham marriages are being investigated in Accrington.

The Archdeacon of Blackburn, The Venerable John Hawley, said the incidents centered around two churches in the town, St Peter’s Church and St Andrews

In a bid to stop future problems, the Archdeacon has called on church leaders to be vigilant.

He says any suspicious marriages in Accrington will now be passed to the Blackburn Diocesan lawyer and that clergy have been issued with a checklist.

He said: "Our clergy have other things to do rather than float around sorting out sham marriages.

"They have been instructed that if anyone from eastern block countries of the European Union, and also from African states, contacts them that they should make sure they don’t handle proposed marriages themselves. They should pass it on to the registrar, the diocesan lawyer, a solicitor. And all the legal stuff regarding the couple will be handled by him."

According to The Venerable John Hawley, who oversees clergy matters in Accrington, more than 40 bogus marriages are being investigated at St Peter’s Church and St Andrews, both in Accrington, in recent months.

The UK Borders Agency have confirmed 17 operations have taken place in the North West over the summer and 49 arrests were made.

Three people involved in bogus marriages in St Peter’s Church, Accrington, face jail for involvement in sham marriages and are due to be sentenced next month.

The news follows the sentencing of a pregnant Czech bride who was jailed for her part in an Accrington sham marriage.

Monika Slepcikova, 23, of Liverpool, was seven months pregnant when she was jailed for eight months in September after pleading guilty to assisting unlawful immigration at Burnley Crown Court.

Czech Slepcikova, 23, was paid £2,000 to wed Uchenna Peter Ezimorah, 36, at St Peter’s Church, in Accrington, on June 29 last year.

But Slepcikova walked free when three senior judges at the Court of Appeal in London suspended her sentence – allowing her to give birth at home.

Archdeacon Hawley said: "It’s not a widespread thing. There were a certain set of circumstances which led to the clergy doing what they were doing. Clergy tried to be helpful in these cases but didn’t realise they were being used. That’s now stopped."

Ernie Hall, the Minister at the Trinity Community Church on Christ Church Square, Accrington, said: "I have had not had any requests for marriages that have given me any cause for concern. But it has been happening in other parts of the Accrington Deanery, which is why the Diocese is drawing up the checklist."

Joe Fielder, the vicar at St John’s Baxenden, said: "I’m glad to hear the Diocese is thinking it through. I conduct a marriage based on information people give to me. I use my common sense like any other minister would do. You can usually spot when people are being genuine."

A spokesman for Blackburn Diocese said: "All clergy in the Blackburn Diocese of the Church of England have been warned about ‘sham marriages’. They have been made aware of the legal advice available to them through the Diocesan Registrar, if they have anxieties about individual cases.

"The 14 Area Deans in the diocese have been additionally alerted to keep a watching brief in their areas through their contacts with local clergy."

He added: "It would not be appropriate to comment about the situation at St Peter’s, Accrington, as it is understood further legal cases may be under consideration. However the church wardens there have been made aware of the situation and warned about any further marriage applications that may appear suspicious."

The Venerable John Hawley added: "I would hope it will now make a difference. We obviously have to continue to do more. We are meeting next week to try and see where we can go with it."

Dave Magrath, head of the UK Border Agency Immigration Crime Team in the North-West, said: "We are committed to tackling sham marriages and take action against those who try to falsify marriages in order to gain entry to the UK.

"We have specialist teams of immigration officers and police working to investigate cases just like this and ensuring people are not able to benefit from breaking the UK’s immigration laws."


* Olarotimi Ojugbele, 41, of Loughborough Park, London, and o Nadezda Mirgova, 26, of East Road, Longsight, Manchester, have both admitted taking part in a bogus wedding.
* Anna Gabcova, 32, of Grosvenor Road, Wavertree, Liverpool, admitted assisting unlawful immigration to a member state and bigamy.