LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A new report shows that an attack on a place of worship takes place nearly every other day in Northern Ireland.
After filing a freedom of information request, the public advocacy charity CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) discovered 445 attacks took place resulting in criminal damage to religious buildings, churchyards, or cemeteries in Northern Ireland over the last three years.
“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,” said Mark Baillie, CARE Northern Ireland’s Policy Officer.
“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,” he added.
The Catholic Church is the largest individual religious group in Northern Ireland, making up about 40 percent of the population, although 45 percent of the people belong to various Protestant groups.
The province has long seen tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and although the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended most of the sectarian violence in the North, sectarian tensions continue to simmer.
The churches attacked belong to different denominations, and the motivations for the attacks were not recorded in the CARE report, so it is not known how many could be attributed to sectarianism.
“Following two arson attacks on our church in July 2016 the initial response was one of anger and frustration quickly followed by asking: Why?” explained Dr. Alistair McCracken of Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church in Belfast.
“There then came a sort of grieving period as we grappled with the practicalities of how to manage the restoration of the buildings,” he said.
“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,” McCracken said.
The attacks caused extensive damage to the Presbyterian church, and it took two years for the church to fully reopen.
Just a few months ago, Holy Family Catholic church in Derry was set on fire, destroying an outbuilding and damaging the sanctuary and rectory.
“I can’t understand what goes on in a person’s mind that they want to cause damage to other people and how it can make them feel good. I feel more sorry for them. There is something badly wrong in their lives whenever they do this,” Father Paddy O’Kane told the BBC following the May 24 attack.
The report also highlighted several other attacks this year, including the Easter Sunday paint attack on Sacred Heart Church in Ballyclare and the March vandalism of the disused Church of the Resurrection in Belfast.
Both the Belfast Synagogue and Belfast Islamic Centre have suffered property damage in the last 10 years as well.
CARE is calling on the government to extend a security protection funding scheme which is available in England and Wales to Northern Ireland.
Started in 2016, the places of worship (POW) protective security funding scheme provides funding for protective security measures to places of worship and associated faith community centres that are vulnerable to hate crime. The government announced in March it was boosting the funding for the program to nearly $2 million.
Beginning this year, applicants will not be required to show they have already experienced a hate crime and will be able to apply, if they can show they are vulnerable to hate crime.
However, the scheme does not apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland.
James Mildred, CARE’s Communications Manager, explained to Crux the money could be used for lighting, fences, CCTV, and other security measures.
“It’s not only about the practical measures this money will enable places of worship to adopt, it is also about the signal it sends from the Government that they take attacks on places of worship seriously,” Mildred said.
Baillie said applying the program to Northern Ireland should be “a matter of urgency.”
“These attacks leave religious groups with property damage, potentially large insurance costs and fears of future attacks,” he said.
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