A vial of holy blood belonging to the dead pope John Paul II was stolen from a tiny church in the mountains east of Rome, and an Italian anti-occult organization says the blood was likely taken for Satanic rituals.

The theft shocked officials at the Vatican, and 50 Carabinieri officers with police dogs are searching the region. What they seek is one of the very few specimens of the former pope's blood, which soaked his white clothing after the attempt on his life in 1981.

These bits of dried blood harvested from the gravely wounded pope are crucial to the church, especially now that John Paul II is about to be named a saint. And an Italian anti-occult organization says a gang of devil worshippers may have taken the blood for unimaginable rituals.

"This sort of sacrilege often take place at this time of the year," said Giovanni Panunzio, head of the anti-occult Osservatorio Antiplagio. According to Panunzio, this is a week when European Satanists do their most wretched work.

Satanism has mostly been forgotten as Catholicism fades from the lives of most Europeans, but in heavily Catholic nations such as Italy there is still widespread fear of it.

The San Pietro Della Lenca church, where Pope John Paul II's blood was stolen.

The burglary occurred at the San Pietro Della Lenca church in the Abruzzo region, where the late pope loved to visit for winter skiing. After his death, John Paul's personal secretary gave the reliquary, an ornate container for a holy person's relics, to the humble church in the mountains.

John Paul II frequently escaped his duties at the Vatican to go snow skiing in these mountains. After his old age kept him from the slopes, he enjoyed long hikes in the region.

The stolen vial is one of only three that contain the real blood of John Paul II, Vatican officials said.

[Top photo, of a nun displaying John Paul II's bloody undershirt in 2011, via Getty Images. Church image via Google Maps.]