Northern Ireland has witnessed nearly 450 recorded attacks on places of worship over the past three years, according to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The data revealed a significant spike upwards in acts of crime against churches and other religious buildings in recent years, prompting calls for immediate action to protect churches and other religious buildings.
Following a freedom of information request, 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. According to CARE, one particular church has been struck twice: Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church suffered two arson attacks in July 2016 and it took a full two years for the church building to be repaired.
Mark Baillie, policy officer for CARE NI, said the organisation was calling for more support to be made available to churches and other religious buildings.
CARE is also in the process of writing to all party leaders, asking for a specific manifesto commitment to set up a fund in NI like the Places of Worship: protective security funding scheme, which is available to religious buildings in England and Wales.
Dr Alistair McCracken, clerk of session at Saintfield, said the church would support any government measures to protect churches.
He told CARE NI, ‘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, this 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’.
Created in July 2016, the Places of Worship fund was set up by the Home Office for England and Wales to help places of worship buy security measures such as CCTV, fencing and lighting.
The scheme’s funding was boosted to £1.6m in 2019, with a further £5m to provide security training for places of worship, but at the moment there is no comparable scheme in Northern Ireland.