Northern Ireland: places of worship attacked every three days

(Photo: Unsplash/Andrew Seaman)

Calls were being made today for greater protection of churches and other places of worship in Northern Ireland after hundreds of attacks in recent years.

A freedom of information request by CARE NI revealed that since 2014, there have been 601 recorded crimes causing criminal damage to religious buildings, churchyards and cemetries in the province - around one every three days. 

The worst affected area is Belfast City, where 173 attacks - over a quarter of the total recorded across Northern Ireland - took place. 

Rev Aaron McAlister is the Rector of Derriaghy Parish Church, Lisburn, which was broken into in November 2019 and vandalised, causing significant damage to the vestry and sanctuary.

"The individuals concerned managed to get in behind our organ while searching for valuables but fortunately there was nothing to take," he said.

"It left many of my parishioners deeply upset. An attack on a place of worship is an attack on the community that worships there.

"Rather than getting on with serving our community, we have had to spend valuable hours repairing the damage caused."

In response to the findings, CARE NI is urging the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce a similar funding scheme to that already launched in England and Wales four years ago to help places of worship cover the cost of securing their buildings. 

With plans already underway in Scotland to introduce a similar funding programme there, Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of the UK without a formal government funding scheme to protect places of worship. 

As lockdown eases, CARE NI Policy Officer, Mark Baillie said a security fund was more urgent than ever with places of worship once again at risk. 

"Across Northern Ireland, churches and other places of worship have been attacked with alarming regularity and it makes sense, therefore, to consider introducing a security fund," 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."

He continued: "It is a human right for individuals to live out and practise their religious beliefs, and attacks on places of worship offend against those rights.

"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."

Rev McAlister is adding his voice to calls for a security fund. 

"I would support additional Government measures to protect places of worship. Action to prevent attacks happening to other faith communities would be hugely welcome," he said.