There have been more than 600 attacks on places of worship in Northern Ireland in the last five years, prompting renewed calls for action to protect churches and other religious buildings.
According to a Freedom of Information request to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), charity CARE NI revealed that, since 2014/15, there have been 601 crimes recorded as criminal damage to religious buildings, churchyards, or cemeteries in Northern Ireland across the 11 policing districts.
On average, this means in the last five years an attack on a place of worship has taken place approximately every three days. Belfast City has seen the most, with 173 attacks, more than a quarter of the total number, the PSNI figures showed.
With churches having returned to worship services after the lockdown, CARE NI said the Executive needs to consider policies to ensure places of worship are properly protected.
The charity 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.
Created in July 2016, the fund provides financial resources so places of worship can buy security measures such as CCTV, fencing, and lighting.
The Scottish government has announced it is introducing a similar scheme, leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of the UK without one.
Revd Aaron McAlister, rector of Derriaghy Parish Church, reported that his church was broken into and vandalised in November last year.
He said he would welcome any action to prevent attacks happening to other faith communities.
According to Mark Baillie, policy officer for CARE NI, the attacks in Northern Ireland on churches and other places of worship have been happening with ‘alarming regularity’ and it would therefore make sense to introduce a security fund.
Mr Baillie explained, ‘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 expressed concern that the gradual easing of lockdown post-Covid-19 would ‘only increase the opportunity and risk of further attacks’, and called on MLAs to take action.
Mr Baillie said, ‘It is a human right for individuals to live out and practice their religious beliefs, and attacks on places of worship offend against those rights’.