BOGOTA, Colombia — Using guns and dressed as police, a group of thieves broke into the Colombian bishops' conference headquarters in Bogota and took a safe that contained cash, checkbooks and deeds to bank accounts that the church uses to finance programs for the poor.

The assault on church property took place the night of March 29 as violent crimes have increased in Colombia following a 7% contraction of the economy last year and high unemployment due to the pandemic.

"Our country is facing a very difficult situation" said Bogota Archbishop Luis José Rueda Aparicio. "These are tough times, and we hope this helps us to reflect on how to regain values like respect for others and respect for life."

Up to 120 people work each day at the bishops' headquarters, but most staff had left for the Easter holidays when the robbery took place.

Auxiliary Bishop Elkin Álvarez of Medellin, president of bishops' conference, said only four people were inside the compound when eight thieves broke in.

"Two of them were dressed as policemen, and they convinced the security guards to let them in, arguing that they needed them to sign some papers," Bishop Álvarez said.

"They tied up the guards and two more people who were there, and then the rest of the thieves drove in with their cars," said Bishop Álvarez.

He said the thieves' ability to find the safes suggests they had planned the attack in advance and obtained information from someone in the building.

Colombian police are investigating the incident and offered a $6,000 reward for information leading to the perpetrators.

Church officials said they were still calculating how much cash was taken.

Father Jaime Marenco, head of communications for the bishops' conference, said financial documents, including deeds to long-term bank deposits, were stolen, which could give the thieves an opportunity to fake signatures and try to plunder the church's accounts. However, Father Marenco said, banks were notified of the incident.

Father Marenco said staff have been encouraged to return to the building after Easter to "continue working for a more just society."

"We ask God to heal hearts and clean those consciences that have been stained by evil," he said.