LONDON (AP) — British police were searching Friday for vandals who chopped down a thorn tree venerated for centuries by Christians.
The Glastonbury Holy Thorn Tree, said to have links to the earliest days of Christianity in England, has been reduced to a six-foot stump by vandals who sawed off its limbs.
The desecration happened the night after a sprig from the tree was cut off in a ceremony so it could be given to Queen Elizabeth II to decorate her Christmas table, said Glastonbury Mayor John Coles.
Coles believes the traditional ceremony may have sparked a backlash.
"Whether the person responsible for the deed saw the ceremony on local television or witnessed it, it's rather a coincidence that it was done that same night," he said. "We don't know whether it's one person responsible or a group."
Coles said the cutting ceremony usually involves the oldest child at a local nursery and the local vicar and mayor. The queen always sends a letter of thanks, he added.
Glastonbury, 125 miles (200 kilometers) west of London, is best known for its annual rock music festival that has drawn artists such as Bruce Springsteen since the 1960s.
Religious tradition holds that the original tree was planted by St. Joseph of Arimathea — the wealthy merchant who volunteered his tomb to Jesus — after he first made landfall in England some 2,000 years ago. The chopped-down tree is thought to be descended from the original and sprouted on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury.
"The story goes that Joseph of Arimathea pushed his staff into the ground and pronounced it to be weary — that's why it's known as Wearyall Hill," said Coles. "The tree is said to have grown from the staff. It's something you can't prove or disprove."
Many pilgrims have left offerings at the base of the tree over the years.
Katherine Gorbing, the director of Glastonbury Abbey, said there is some hope the tree may recover.
"We're very hopeful that it will grow back," she said.
Raphael G. Satter contributed to this report.