In the past three years nearly 450 places of worship across Northern Ireland have been subject to attack, prompting a call for immediate action to protect churches and other religious buildings.
Following a freedom of information request, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) NI revealed there were 445 crimes recorded as criminal damage to religious buildings, churchyards or cemeteries in Northern Ireland across the 11 policing districts in the last three years.
On average this means a crime against a place of worship has taken place almost every other day.
CARE cited Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church as a shocking example after it suffered two arson attacks in July 2016 and took a full two years to be repaired.
Dr Alistair McCracken, clerk of session at Saintfield Road Presbyterian, said they would support any government measures to protect churches.
He said: “Following two arson attacks on our church in July 2016 the initial response was one of anger and frustration quickly followed by asking ‘why?’.
“There then came a sort of grieving period as we grappled with the practicalities of how to manage the restoration of the buildings.
“In time that was replaced with excitement, anticipation and hope as a newly refurbished building took shape.
“Looking back as a congregation we most firmly believe that out of what men meant for evil, came good and blessing.
“As a congregation we would welcome any initiatives by government to protect churches from further attacks.”
CARE NI called for more support to be made available to churches and other religious buildings, and the charity will be writing to all political party leaders, asking for a specific manifesto commitment to set up a fund in NI like the Places of Worship (POW) protective security funding scheme available to religious buildings in England and Wales.
CARE Northern Ireland’s policy officer Mark Baillie said: “Our research shows that there are crimes being committed against places of worship nearly every other day in Northern Ireland. It’s not limited to one location and there are recorded examples in every policing district across the Province. These are concerning figures and clearly action needs to be taken.
“In a free and democratic society, no-one should be afraid of gathering together with those who share their faith in a place of worship.
“These attacks leave religious groups with property damage, potentially large insurance costs and fears of future attacks.”
UUP’s Robbie Butler said: “Whilst all crimes motivated by hate are particularly despicable, and perpetrators of them must be pursued and detained, as a society we should also be ensuring that churches have the means and the support they require to protect themselves from attack.”