The parish priest of a Catholic church targeted by arsonists believes the attack is linked to heightened sectarian tensions after recent controversy over the flying of Union flags.
Police are treating the fire at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Whitehead, Co Antrim, as suspicious.
Some mass-goers broke down in tears when they were told of the news yesterday morning, Fr Tony Curran said.
He said he believed the attack was sectarian, and praised fellow clergy members from across the divide who have inundated him with messages of support.
“There is no reason for what happened,” he said.
“The church has been here for over 100 years. A lot of people in our parish are elderly and for them the church has been their spiritual home all their lives. They were very distressed. It was sad to see tears in people’s eyes.”
The fire was discovered in a boiler house at the church on Victoria Avenue at 4am yesterday.
The boiler was destroyed as a result, as were a number of sculptures which had been stored nearby. No services will take place in the church until repairs running into thousands of pounds are carried out.
Fr Curran said up to 300 parishioners attend the church. He said since joining the parish two years ago he had been overwhelmed by parishioners’ extraordinary generosity towards local charities.
“Ministers from other churches have been very quick to express their upset and that’s the kind of relationships that exist here,” he said.
Parishoner Paddy Stewart said he was shocked by the attack.
“We were doing a lot of preparation of vigil mass and Christmas morning mass and the damage is such that the electrics and the heating system are out,” he said.
“All the suppliers are closed until after Christmas, so we've had a lot of other parishioners and helpers from different churches in Whitehead — we are a close community — moving furniture from the church into the local primary school,” he said. “We'll have our mass there until we can get the church up and running.”
Alliance East Antrim MLA and Stormont justice committee member Stewart Dickson said there was never any justification for an attack on a place of worship.
“I know the local community will show their support and offer any help that is needed to repair any damage,” said Mr Dickson, whose party offices in Carrickfergus were also targeted by arsonists earlier this month.
East Antrim DUP MLA David Hilditch also condemned the attack. “Up until now relations between the various sections of the community have been fairly good. I don't know what drove someone to do this but it cannot happen,” he said.
The PSNI has asked anyone with information to contact them on 0845 600 8000 or via Crimestoppers 0800 555 111.