Rathfriland Baptist congregation returns to church after 'attack on the gospel' by arsonists
The members of a Co Down Baptist church are finally back home five months after arsonists tried to destroy their building.
Tyres were piled up against the side of Rathfriland Baptist Church and set on fire late on the evening of May 18.
Damage was caused to the side of the building and windows were broken.
The inside also sustained smoke and water damage.
The arson attack was widely condemned at the time, with politicians sending messages of support, including Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who said he was "disgusted".
South Down MLA Jim Wells also said the attack was both sectarian and "Christophobic".
Pastor Ian Wilson, who at the time described it as "an attack on the gospel", yesterday said the mood in the congregation was now one of joy.
"We are absolutely delighted to be back," he said.
"We had a nice service today in our newly refurbished church and people are of course glad to be back in their spiritual home."
Thanking everyone who supported them over recent months, Pastor Wilson said the church had been forced to rely on the goodwill of its neighbours, meeting for services at Rathfriland High School, as well as using other local schools for its various groups.
"There was a major clean-up operation and a lot of damage and items that had to be replaced," said Pastor Wilson.
"The damage came to tens of thousands of pounds.
"We are indebted to the businesses that carried out the work.
"We are also indebted to our church members and friends who carried out a lot of voluntary work.
"A lot of work had to be carried out by our own people. It was a huge team effort."
Pastor Wilson said that thankfully no structural changes were required.
"The church is looking really, really well," he said.
"It has got the 'new paint' smell.
"We are delighted with the building."
Pastor Wilson said he had still no idea why his church had been targeted and had sympathy for other churches similarly damaged in recent arson attacks.
"The same night of our incident a church in Enniskillen had its window broken and the Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church was also targeted a couple of times," he said.
"A number of Orange Halls have also been attacked.
"Normally churches are left alone so it is worrying.
"The feeling is it is not going to get much worse. We have no idea of the motivation.
"Rathfriland is a pretty good town, community relations are always good."
No-one has been charged in connection with the incident, but Pastor Wilson said he believed it was a difficult crime to investigate without eyewitnesses.
"Tyres were piled up along with some sort of accelerant," he said.
"It's very difficult. I have sympathy with the police."