London, Aug 24 : The number of bogus weddings performed by Anglican priests has risen by as much as 400 per cent in some dioceses over the last four years in Britain.
Illegal immigrants are exploiting a legal loophole to gain British citizenship by getting married in Church of England ceremonies, The Telegraph reported.
Foreign nationals have turned to the Church because it is exempt from rules that require all foreign nationals from outside the European Union to obtain a Home Office certificate of approval to marry in a register office.
The diocese of Southwark, which covers Greater London south of the Thames, has seen the number of applications for common licences rise from 90 in 2004 to 493 last year.
Such dramatic increases are being repeated across the country, according to Church records.
In the diocese of Ripon and Leeds, there has been a trebling from 24 applications in 2004 to 69 last year, and in London diocese they have gone from 159 to 383 over the same period.
This contrasts with Government figures that show the number of suspected sham marriages has fallen from 3,500 in 2004 to as few as 400 last year following the introduction of strict controls on those being wed in a register office.
Confidential guidelines have been issued by bishops to warn clergy of the scam, which has exploded since a Government crackdown on sham marriages was introduced in 2004.
The Tories last night expressed concern that immigration controls are being bypassed so easily and called on the Government to set up more rigorous arrangements.
Senior clergy believe that many of their colleagues are being duped by immigrants who claim that their marriages are genuine, despite advice from their bishops stressing the need for them to be vigilant.
The issue was discussed recently by the bishops in a private meeting at which they looked at new guidance on church marriages, but a number of them have taken action separately to tackle the problem.
In a letter to his diocese, the Rt Rev Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, urged priests to be wary of migrants looking to get married who have obtained a common licence - a preliminary for church weddings involving foreign nationls.
These regulations, which require people not legally settled in the UK to seek special permission to marry, were ruled as unlawful by the Law Lords ruled last month, but a Home Office spokesman said that they would continue to operate the current scheme to investigate individual applications.