Across eleven police districts in Northern Ireland, 601 crimes have been recorded against places of worship in the last five years, prompting a call for security funding.
Christian policy charity CARE NI asked the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for all their statistics on crimes against places of worship since 2014/15 in a Freedom of Information Request and discovered that Belfast City has seen the most crimes, with 173 attacks, more than a quarter of the total number.
The figures include places listed as 'church/religious building', 'churchyard' or 'cemetery.'
CARE NI policy officer, Mark Baillie, told Premier the crimes were against a range of faith groups and denominations, and each community had their own story: "In some cases, and it's relatively low-level crimes, things like graffiti, in other cases, it can be arson attacks that burned down the insides of a church building, as happened in Saintfield Road in Belfast."
In July 2016, the Presbyterian Church on Saintfield Road had two arson attacks, leading to extensive damage which took the church two years to fully repair enough to open again.
On Easter Sunday last year, Sacred Heart Church in Ballyclare was attacked with paint and in April 2020, Brantry Parish Church was attacked with a window smashed and damage caused inside.
Baillie said: "I've spoken to a number of ministers and elders who've been affected. The big damage has been psychological damage, knowing that someone out there came to 'our place of worship' and did this. And then it's the sapping of time, the issues around insurance costs and repair costs. All these ministers and elders want to do is they want to serve their communities and they want to tell the world about the difference that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes in their lives and the communities' lives. We believe that there is a better approach possible and we hope that politicians in Northern Ireland will listen to that."
The charity has previously called for funding to protect places of worship in Northern Ireland, similar to a scheme available in England and Wales, and says this data shows the need is urgent.
The Places of Worship Security Funding Scheme in England and Wales helps churches, mosques and temples buy security such as CCTV, locks, fencing and lighting.
The Scottish Government has also announced they are introducing a similar scheme.
Rev Aaron McAlister, rector of Derriaghy Parish Church, said he would support additional Government measures to protect places of worship: "In November 2019, our Church was broken in to and vandalised. Significant damage was caused to our vestry and our sanctuary.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.
"I would support additional Government measures to protect places of worship. Action to prevent attacks happening to other faith communities would be hugely welcome."
Listen to Premier's interview with Mark Ballie here: