South Belfast church devastated by two arson attacks in 48 hours
Northern Ireland's Secretary of State James Brokenshire, First Minister Arlene Foster and DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly have expressed disgust at the incident.
Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church has had to cancel its Sunday services after suffering two arson attacks in 48 hours.
However youth activities have been re-arranged to take place at Breda Academy and Newtownbreda Baptist Church today as the local community rallies around the church congregation.
Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church, at Myrtledene Road, in south Belfast was attacked overnight between Thursday and Friday, and again in the early hours of Sunday morning.
A short time for prayers and reflection will take place outside the church at 4pm on Sunday afternoon.
Church elder Alistair McCracken said the congregation is very sad about what has happened.
"We are just desperately sad that this has happened and that damage has been caused to the premises," he said.
"We haven't been able to get into the building yet because police are still doing their work in there."
He said he understands two blazes were set in the latest incident, one in the church sanctuary and one in the church hall.
"It is really disappointing for everyone associated with the church," he said.
He paid tribute to local school Breda Academy for coming to the church's rescue by offering its facility to host youth group activities on Sunday morning.
Forensic officers are at the church examining and damage and gathering evidence to investigate the incident.
It is understood that a carpet was set on fire, and the building has suffered extensive smoke damage.
The church said that during the first attack, its building was set alight, and a substantial fire broke out in the kitchen area. It also caused flooding in the halls.
Church workers were on the scene on Friday and Saturday cleaning to ensure the building would be fit to host their two services on Sunday.
However the second attack in the early hours of Sunday morning was so severe the church building is now out of bounds.
A spokesman for the PSNI said they are investigating the incident at the church and neighbouring hall.
As I head out to church I am so sad to learn that Saintfield road Presb church has been attacked. Senseless hate crime— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) July 24, 2016
Shocked & saddened by another attack on a South Belfast church. This must stop. https://t.co/YEMDFQprG4— Emma LittlePengelly (@little_pengelly) July 24, 2016
"It is believed that this attack occurred sometime between 1.00am and 1.20am, today, Sunday, 24 July," he said.
"The Church and the hall sustained considerable damage."
Inspector Jonathan Francey has appealed to anyone who may have noticed any suspicious activity around the church or anyone who has information about this incident to contact Police at Castlereagh on the non-emergency number 101.
Northern Ireland's Secretary of State James Brokenshire released a statement this morning expressing sadness at the "disgraceful attack".
"I am shocked and saddened to hear of the disgraceful attack on Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church and hall," he said.
“My thoughts are with its parishioners who will be devastated by this news.”
First Minister Arlene Foster tweeted her solidarity with the church, describing the attack on it as a "senseless hate crime", and DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly said she is shocked and saddened.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford described Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church as being at "the beating heart of the four winds community".
"Churches play a massive part in helping the community and I want to express my deepest sympathies to the congregation. I will do all in my power to support the people there," he said.
"I'm appalled at this senseless attack on the Church. The attack has left so many in the area saddened.
"I encourage anyone who has any information, that they report it to the police."
Sinn Féin MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir also condemned the attack on the church.
“As with the previous attack the people behind this attack are targeting a hub of community endeavour and a place of worship and peace building," he said.
“My thoughts are with the congregation of Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church.
“I have been in contact with them and I know they will not be deflected from their good work by this senseless act.
“I would call on anyone with information to contact the police.”