SHAM marriage ring leaders Milan Cina and Andzelina Surmaj targeted unsuspecting parishes in East Lancashire.

Vicars, believing the marriages to be genuine, conducted the ceremonies in St Peter’s Church and St Andrew’s Church, both Accrington, as well as as All Saints Church, Clayton-le-Moors between December 2008 and July 2009.

UK Border Agency, who led the investigation, said the vicars became suspicious because of the number of ceremonies involving Eastern Europeans and foreign nationals.

They flagged up their concerns during a routine visit.

Kelly Rosenthal, investigating officer for the agency, said: “We met with vicars at St Andrew’s Church and St Peter’s Church who told us that they had seen a great rise in the numbers of foreign nationals marrying European Union nationals.

“After three weddings the vicars raised this with senior church managers.

“The church was doing everything it could and even more. A West African and East European spouse was an unusual demographic for the area in late 2009.

“They tightened up procedure with affidavit and licence bands from 2008.

“Couples also had to apply for a licence, provide copies of their passports, identification documents and utility bills to show they were residents in the parish.

“These were copied and provided to officials.

“Vicars were doing a good job and they tightened up procedure.

“But the criminals adapted, they produced fake documents such as passports.”` It is estimated that Cina and Surmaj made £26,000 out of the scam, but according to the UK Border Agency it is unclear where the money went.

Surmaj, 30, was a Roma asylum seeker who had been about to be deported before Poland joined the European Union.

She lived in a rented detached bungalow in Bradford and was receiving benefits.

Cina, 38, who is Czechoslovakian and had been in a relationship with Surmaj, had at least three identities, the agency said.

Surmaj recruited brides while Cina would supply the grooms.

Ms Rosenthal said: “Surmaj recruited two EU nationals at school gates in Bradford. She had children at the school.

“She picked up cash strapped vulnerable women and offered £1,000 to £2,000.

“The women were told to think of the money. Surmaj was quite a charming individual to the unsuspecting eye.

“The women thought they were building a nice friendship with a woman from their community.

“A couple of brides had doubts. She provided corset, skirt and top for one wedding.

“One bride panicked outside the church because she had doubts but was coaxed into the church.”

The pair created false documents and registered addresses near to the churches in East Lancashire.

Cina would wait outside the church in case the vicars would recognise him.

Ms Rosenthal said: “All the addresses they used were false.”