Concern has been expressed after figures showed there have been more than 600 attacks on places of worship in Northern Ireland in the last five years.
According to police statistics, there have been 601 incidents of criminal damage to religious buildings, churchyards or cemeteries since 2014/15.
The number of attacks has remained relatively consistent each year, with 136 in 2014/15, 128 in 2015/16, 118 in 2016/17, 115 in 2017/18 and 104 in 2018/19.
Most of the incidents took place in Belfast (173), followed by Lisburn and Castlereagh (60), Newry, Mourne and Down (58) and Ards and North Down (57).
Attacks on Catholic churches included a recent incident at St MacNissi’s Church in Larne, which was targeted with a paint bomb in February 2020.
Speaking at the time, Sinn Féin Causeway Coast and Glens councillor Oliver McMullan, who is a former MLA for the area, condemned it as a “blatant sectarian attack” and said he was receiving reports “on a weekly basis” about such incidents in the area.
“The Catholic population is gutted by this” attack, he told The Irish News. “You don’t touch a church.”
Other notable attacks on Catholic churches included Sacred Heart Church in Ballyclare, which had white paint thrown at it during an attack on Easter Sunday 2019; the disused Church of the Resurrection on the Cavehill Road in Belfast, which suffered significant damage at the hands of vandals in March 2019; and St Mary’s Church in Limavady, which was sprayed with paramilitary graffiti reading ‘UDA’ and ‘UFF’ in July 2018.
St Patrick’s Cathedral in Co Armagh was also a victim of an attack in April 2018. The cathedral was one of two Catholic churches in Northern Ireland, along with Carrickmore Chapel in Co Tyrone, that was daubed with graffiti prior to the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland.
Another notable attack saw St Patrick’s Church on Donegall Street in Belfast suffer £10,000 worth of damage in an arson attack in January 2017.
Speaking at the time, the Bishop of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor, said he was “deeply shocked and appalled” at the attack, which, he added, “is a violation of the sanctity of the Church”, as well as “an attack upon the local community”.
“Places of worship hold deep significance for the entire community and for their congregations and they should not be targeted,” he said.
Anglican churches are also among those that have been targeted and both the Belfast Synagogue and Belfast Islamic Centre have suffered property damage in the last 10 years.
The figures were uncovered by Christian Action Research & Education (CARE NI) following a Freedom of Information request.
The Christian charity has called on the Stormont Executive to consider policies to ensure that places of worship are properly protected.
It has previously called for a Places of Worship: Protective Security Funding Scheme to be set up, mirroring a similar scheme available in England and Wales.
The Scottish Government has announced it is introducing a similar scheme there, leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of the United Kingdom without such a scheme.
CARE NI policy officer Mark Baillie said churches are being attacked with “alarming regularity”, adding that it makes sense to consider introducing a security fund.
“More than 600 attacks in the last five years is a reminder that places of worship, which should be safe spaces for worshippers and congregants, are all too often targeted by vandalism and violence,” he said.
“The gradual easing of lockdown will surely only increase the opportunity and risk of further attacks and therefore it’s important MLAs take action.
“Last year, following CARE NI’s previous research into this issue, we wrote to the party leaders asking for a manifesto commitment to create a security fund.
“We had positive engagement with a number of political parties and we are today calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to take this up.”
He added: “The scheme in England and Wales is a practical step we could introduce here to equip places of worship to invest in adequate security to prevent criminal damage.
“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.”
Picture: St Patrick’s Cathedral, Co Armagh, Ireland. (The Irish Image Collection/Zuma Press/PA).