EAST ISLIP, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Church parishioners on Long Island want to know why someone would steal a baby Jesus statue from an outdoor nativity scene, so close to Christmas.

As CBS2’s Valerie Castro reported, Suffolk County police are already on the case.

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The Christmastime display at St. Mary’s Catholic Church is a familiar one — depicting the baby Jesus born in a manger. Yet, something very important is missing from the picture.

“It just feels like something is ripped right out of you, it’s terrible,” Joe Kowalchik said.

Parishioners of the church on Main Street in East Islip were devastated by the theft of the infant Jesus statue. It was snatched from the church lawn sometime after parishioners celebrated Christmas mass.

Suffolk police said they are investigating it as a possible hate crime.

“This time of year, what are they doing, what is wrong with them, are they that desperate?” John Altieri wondered.

Larry Wolff has attended St. Mary’s for 35 years. His daily prayers now include a plea to the person who stole the statue.

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“I don’t know. I hope so, I hope they would bring it back. It would show a sign of repentance,” Wolff said.

The church’s business manager said someone stole the baby Jesus four years ago before returning it. Joe Isoldi said that for a while, the previous theft prompted church officials to place a GPS tracker in the statue.

“The service was discontinued last year. This was the first year that the tracking device was gone from the statue and it was taken,” he said.

There is no surveillance video of the person who took the statue. Church leaders had briefly considered even more drastic safety measures for their outdoor display.

“There was thought of encasing the manger in [hard plastic sheets], but we just don’t want to do that. It just doesn’t send out the right message,” Isoldi said.

Isoldi said the church will not pursue prosecution as long as the blessed child is returned to its rightful resting place.

Church leaders said whether or not the original is returned, there will be a baby Jesus placed in the outdoor manger.

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