Northern Ireland

St Patrick's church: Priest escapes arson attack

St Patrick's Church
Image caption The fire at St Patrick's Church was discovered on Monday afternoon

An elderly priest was praying in a Catholic church in north Belfast when the building was set on fire in an arson attack.

The fire began in the porch of St Patrick's church on Donegall Street on Monday evening.

The Diocese of Down and Connor's communications officer, Fr Eddie McGee, said the retired priest and the local community were "shocked" by the attack.

He praised the "very quick and prompt response" of police and firefighters.

"Their actions ensured that the fire didn't spread to the rest of the church," Fr Magee told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

'Potentially dangerous'

When firefighters arrived they found a heavy set of 25-foot long velvet curtains, valued at £10,000, on fire.

Some smoke damage was also caused to the building.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption Church administrator, David Gantley, assessed the damage to a set of velvet curtains, valued at £10,000, which were set on fire at the entrance to the building

"We need to remember that actions such as this are not only potentially destructive to a building but they violate what we consider to be our sacred space," said Fr Magee.

"Also, they can be potentially dangerous to people who are using those premises. This happened at five o'clock in the evening when the church would have been open and people would have been in saying their prayers, as this priest was.

"He was quite shocked by what happened, but I think it speaks to the dedication and resilience of the local clergy, that already by last night they were trying to get the place in order again and get it all cleaned up for the parishioners."

Five years ago, St Patrick's church became a sectarian flashpoint after a controversial incident outside the building during Belfast's annual 12 July parade.

Parishioners protested after a loyalist band was filmed marching in a circle outside the church, playing The Famine Song - an anti-Catholic song judged racist by a court in Scotland.

Image caption Band members were filmed playing music while marching in circles outside the church in 2012

Thirteen band members were prosecuted, but they denied playing a sectarian tune and successfully appealed their convictions in 2015.

'Cross-community support'

Fr Magee said it was "too early to speak about motivations" for Monday night's arson attack.

"The police are currently looking into the cause of the fire and the reasons why someone would carry out such an act, but I suppose, what I would say to whoever it was that carried out the action - they need to think about the consequences of actions such as this," he said.

"Sadly in the north of Ireland, we have lots of experiences of places of worship being attacked and these attacks are not only destructive but also symbolic.

Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption The church is currently undergoing maintenance work

"These are held very close to the heart of those who worship there and indeed to the wider community and that was born testimony last night when the local clergy, and indeed the bishop, were receiving words of support from across the community - other church leaders, political representatives - and I think an attack such as this is an attack on the community.

Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor said he was "deeply shocked and appalled by the suspected arson attack".

"This criminal action is a violation of the sanctity of the church and an attack upon the local community that has caused significant damage to the property and left the local congregation distressed and deeply upset," he said.

"Places of worship hold deep significance for the entire community and for their congregations and they should not be targeted.

He also paid tribute to the emergency services "who acted quickly to bring the fire under control and have prevented further damage to this most beloved place of worship in the heart of the city of Belfast".