A Connor rector has added his voice to calls for additional Government measures to protect places of worship.
The Rev Aaron McAlister, rector of Derriaghy Parish, was responding to a report published today that indicates there have been more than 600 attacks on places of worship in Northern Ireland in the last five years. Derriaghy Parish Church was broken into and vandalised in November 2019.
The figures have been released by Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) NI, following a Freedom of Information request to the PSNI. They reveal 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.
With lockdown restrictions beginning to ease and churches returning to worship services, CARE NI said today that the Northern Ireland 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 that it is introducing a similar scheme there, leaving Northern Ireland as the only part of the United Kingdom without such a scheme.
Supporting the call, Aaron outlined the impact of the November 2019 break-in at Derriaghy. “Significant damage was caused to our vestry and our sanctuary,” he said. “The individuals concerned managed to get in behind our organ while searching for valuables, but fortunately there was nothing to take.
“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.”
He added: “I would support additional government measures to protect places of worship. Action to prevent attacks happening to other faith communities would be hugely welcome.”
CARE NI Policy Officer, Mark Baillie, said: “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.
“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.
“The gradual easing of lockdown will surely only increase the opportunity and risk of further attacks and therefore, it’s important MLAs take action.”
Mark said that last year, following CARE’s NI previous research into this issue, the organisation had written to party leaders asking for a manifesto commitment to create a security fund.
“We had positive engagement with a number of political parties and we are today calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to take this up,” he 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.
“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.”
Mark and Aaron both spoke about this issue in an interview with United Christian Broadcasters (UCB). You can listen to the interview HERE.