Calls for urgent action as hundreds of places of worship are targeted in Northern Ireland

(Photo: Unsplash/Hermes Rivera)

A Christian advocacy group is calling for urgent action after 445 incidents of criminal damage were recorded against religious buildings, churchyards and cemeteries across Northern Ireland in the last three years.

In the wake of the findings, CARE NI is asking that a security funding scheme available to places of worship across England and Wales be rolled out across Northern Ireland too "as a matter of urgency". 

The number of crimes against places of worship in the province were revealed after the charity made a freedom of information request to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

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." 

Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church, Belfast, suffered two arson attacks in July 2016, with the damage taking two years to fully repair. 

The following year, vandals broke glass windows at Christ Church in Londonderry dating back to the 1800s.  They also defecated and urinated on the premises and destroyed the organ.

In the same year, St Patrick's Church in Belfast suffered £10,000 in damage when it was targeted in an arson attack. 

Then in 2018, Carrickmore Chapel in County Tyrone and St Patrick's Cathedral in County Armagh were vandalised with graffiti in the run-up to the Republic of Ireland abortion referendum. 

More recently, the Sacred Heart Church in Ballyclare, County Antrim, was attacked with paint this year on Easter Sunday. 

CARE NI has written to party leaders urging them to make a specific manifesto commitment to create a fund in Northern Ireland on a par with the 'Places of Worship (POW): protective security funding scheme' that already exists in England and Wales. 

The scheme was set up in July 2016 to help places of worship cover the cost of security improvements to their buildings, such as installing CCTV, new fencing or better lighting. 

(Source: PSNI/CARE NI)

The fund stands at £1.6m this year, with an additional £5m available to provide security training to people who are responsible for religious buildings. 

Dr Alistair McCracken, Clerk of Session at Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church, backs the calls.

"Following two arson attacks on our Church in July 2016 the initial response was one of anger and frustration quickly followed by asking 'why'?" he said. 

"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."

Mr Baillie added: "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.

"The security protection funding scheme which is available in England and Wales for places of worship should be extended to Northern Ireland as a matter of urgency.

"We will be writing to all party leaders, calling on them to include a manifesto commitment to introduce such a scheme, which would undoubtedly be welcomed across NI."