In attacks reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan raids in America’s Deep South during the civil rights era, 10 Catholic churches, almost all of them in out-of-the-way rural areas throughout Northern Ireland, were burned by arsonists on Wednesday night. Three of the churches were gutted. The following day, a Presbyterian church and an Orange Hall were attacked, apparently in retaliation.
The churches that were burned included St. Colmcille’s in East Belfast; St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kilcorig, near Lisburn, Co. Antrim; Mary Queen of Peace, in Blackscull, Dromore, near Portadown, Co. Armagh; St. Theresa’s Chapel, in Banbridge, Co. Down; the Church of the Immaculate Conception, near Castlewellan, Co. Down; St. James’ Church, Aldergrove, Co. Antrim; St. Columba’s and Killyman Chapel, in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone; St. Coleman’s, in Laurencetown, Portadown; and the Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Mullavilly, also near Portadown.
In the areas where the churches were located, there were mostly minority Catholic populations not far from strong loyalist towns, such as Lisburn, Portadown, Banbridge and Antrim.
In most of the areas, there were also good relations between Catholics and Protestants, leading locals to suspect that the arsonists came from outside the immediate community. The Catholic church of St. James, in Aldergrove, Co. Antrim, was built 200 years ago on land given by the local Protestant landlord, Sir Roger Moore.
Fr. John O’Sullivan, the church’s elderly parish priest, said he was disconsolate. He said his congregation of about 150 had such happy memories of the church. “They have been baptized here, married here,” he said.
A young local man, John Burns, was ordained last month and celebrated his first Mass in the Aldergrove church last Monday. “It’s the church my family have worshipped in for generations,” Fr. Burns said.
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Police suspect that the churches were attacked by the Loyalist Volunteer Force, the smallest but deadliest of the loyalist paramilitary groups. However, sources close to the outlawed organization angrily denied responsibility.
Catholic and Protestant leaders joined in condemning the attacks.
“We condemn utterly without reservation this appalling and dastardly act,” Northern Ireland’s new first minister, David Trimble, said at Aldergrove, where he was joined by the area’s Catholic and Church of Ireland bishops and the Presbyterian moderator in a display of cross-community solidarity. “At a time of hope for the future of Northern Ireland, society can ill afford these acts of sectarian madness,” he said. “I am quite sure that this church will rise again from the ashes.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Aldergrove with Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam. Blair told the British cabinet that “this sort of barbarous behavior is totally unacceptable to the people of this country.”
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said that the attacks on churches showed the “worst features of bigotry and hate.”
The Democratic Unionist Party leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, called the attacks “criminal and disgraceful.”