Judging from reports from around the country - from South Jersey and Bucks County to the Alaska town made famous by the "Bridge to Nowhere" - pilferings of the Baby Jesus seem to be on rise.

Since Thanksgiving, figurines of the holy infant have been stolen from public squares, churches, front yards and funeral homes.

No one seems sure why. Anti-Christian sentiment and hopes for profit might play roles, but authorities more often suspect pranksters.

Pennsylvania has had at least five cases this year, including the Jesus taken from a Nativity scene on Independence Mall two weekends ago. A lookalike and a replacement cradle were put in place on Tuesday.

Cape May County, N.J., has had five Jesus disappearances since last weekend - including one in which an entire manger scene disappeared.

On Christmas, however, five "Baby Jesus plastic lawn ornaments" turned up in the front yard of a home on Buttonwood Lane in Milford Township, Bucks County. Levittown's Neil DiSpirito is wondering if any are his. (Anyone else missing one is being asked to call the Dublin barracks of the state police at 215-249-9191.)

During the last 15 years, DiSpirito has had five plastic Jesus figures swiped from his yard, which he annually transforms into what might be called Extreme Makeover: Christmas Edition.

His display has 70,000 lights, 33 inflatables, and 221 hard-plastic characters, including a Baby Jesus that was returned after being snatched, he said.

After it disappeared, a young-sounding male phoned saying "crazy stuff" like "we have your Baby Jesus and we're taking him to Bermuda on a trip," DiSpirito said.

DiSpirito was happy to find that Jesus reappeared in his yard. After all, replacing a Jesus usually means buying an entire Nativity set, he said.

"So we have four spare Marys and four spare Josephs up in the attic," said DiSpirito, 48, an electronics technician for the Neshaminy School District.

Lt. John Edwards said this year's four Jesus thefts were the first in his 15 years with Middle Township police in Cape May County.

Although a serial snatcher could be at work, the motive is unclear, he said. "We're looking at it as vandalism and theft. . . . It could just be a bunch of kids."

If, however, it is "a bias crime" - motivated by hate or prejudice - "it elevates the penalties and the crime to indictable," he said.

Such antipathy could be a motive, said John Stanton of the Christmas Creche Committee, which sets up the Nativity at Independence Mall. "The one that most comes to my mind is that Christianity, Jesus, is pretty much under attack these days," he said.

Stealing Baby Jesuses has become a bit of a tradition in Eureka Springs, Ark. A 70-year-old Sunday school teacher even did it three years ago as "a lark."

According to Virginia Voiers, who was apprehended by police and quoted in the Lovely County Citizen, "My granddaughter commented that no one had taken the Baby Jesus this year and said, 'Grandma?' I said, 'Oh, what the heck.' "

But this year came a more sinister act. A fiberglass Jesus was found damaged and marked with a Hitler mustache, "racial epithets, satanic symbols, and other obscene references," according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. A 19-year-old was arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft.

The resale value of the figurines probably is not a major reason for their theft, said Louis DiCocco, president of DiCocco Family St. Jude Shops, the Philadelphia-area company that donated the Independence Mall replacement Jesus.

"It's not that precious," he said. "You have to think that it's other reasons, just to disrupt, cause chaos. It's not for money."

Recently, his company has replaced two or three stolen infants a year, he estimated, adding that he thought the problem was getting worse.

"People first and foremost don't have the respect for other people's property; particularly, they don't respect anything of faith," he said.

Some Nativity statuary can be costly. Two years ago, an Italian ceramic Baby Jesus worth $1,800 was stolen from a community center in Palm Beach County, Fla.

So last year, a GPS device was hidden inside the figurine, which led to its speedy recovery after another theft. Adding GPS devices has caught on thanks to an offer of free units for religious icons by the New York-based Brickhouse Security.

Other Baby Jesus thefts have been reported this year in California, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

Despite being chained, a Jesus also vanished from the Clover Pass Community Church in Ketchikan, Alaska, according to the Ketchikan Daily News. The town is known as the proposed home of the "Bridge to Nowhere," whose funding was halted by Congress and Gov. Sarah Palin.

Tales of Jesus thefts often include praying for the perpetrators and offering forgiveness. The sign at a Christ-less creche at Alameda Christian Reformed Church in California took a different tack: "Bring back Baby Jesus and no one will get hurt - God."

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.