Charleston killings 'brought back my memories of Darkley slaughter'
A Pentecostal pastor who witnessed the Darkley gospel hall massacre has said memories of the sectarian slaughter came flooding back when he heard how nine black church members had been shot dead in the United States.
Mountain Lodge Pastor David Bell told the Belfast Telegraph he had been in touch with the Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian Church to offer the prayers of his south Armagh congregation.
Dylann Roof (21) opened fire in the South Carolina church on June 17, killing nine people and wounding one other.
Among the dead was State senator and church pastor Clementa C Pinkney.
Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder.
Pastor Bell said that when he heard about the savage murders in the Charleston church "it brought back so many memories of what happened to us here in Darkley 32 years ago".
There are still many in the Mountain Lodge congregation, including Pastor Bell, who were present when Catholic Reaction Force gunmen attacked the little border country church in 1983.
The attack left three elders - David Wilson, Harold Browne and Victor Cunningham - dead and nine other worshippers injured.
"We wanted to offer our thoughts, prayers, and all the support we could to the people of Charleston as other churches had done for us when our own church was attacked," Pastor Bell said.
He said the Mountain Lodge received almost 1,000 letters expressing support and solidarity from all parts of the community after the atrocity.
His message to Charleston was that time is a great healer.
"I can say to the people of Charleston that the memories and the grief never leave, but the passage of time eventually eases the pain."
Pastor Bell was in the Mountain Lodge church when the killers attacked.
Then in his mid-20s, he was with his then girlfriend, later his wife Sally, who was injured in the arm and thigh.
Writing in 2013 in his book Fire On The Mountain, Pastor Bell described the instant the murderers struck.
"For a moment, we all thought someone was throwing pebbles against the outside of the window panes, on that wintry November 1983 evening.
"It sounded just like the rattle of small stones on a tin roof.
"After all, very few of us had ever heard the sound of gunfire before.
"Falling to the floor for cover, we realised all too quickly what was taking place - somehow our church had become the latest target in the Northern Ireland 'Troubles'.
"After what seemed an eternity, the sound of the gunfire ceased. Several of the congregation were injured.
"Three were dead..."
No one was ever arrested or charged with the attack, claimed by the Catholic Reaction Force, a cover name for INLA, in supposed retaliation for loyalist murders.
The Mountain Lodge church was burned down by arsonists in 1994 but was rebuilt, and has reached out with numerous cross-community initiatives.