Religious intolerance must be addressed
It was only by good fortune that the arson attack on St Patrick's Catholic Church near the centre of Belfast did not result in greater damage to the historic building or even in injury to a 92-year-old partially-sighted priest praying there.
St Patrick's is a church which has found itself unwittingly in the front line of inflamed sectarian passions in recent years because of protests against loyal order marches which pass the building and which have seen some bands play deliberately inflammatory tunes outside it, in defiance of a Parades' Commission ruling.
Perhaps it was this background which played on the warped minds of those behind this most recent attack. However, whatever the motivation, it is imperative that all sections of the community speak out with one voice against this deliberate act of vandalism.
For this was not merely an attack on a sacred building, but also on all those who practice their faith there.
That was why more than 100 parishioners turned up for mass yesterday at lunchtime, signalling their refusal to be cowed by sectarian forces.
It is evident that in spite of all the advances made in creating a more peaceful society in Northern Ireland over the last two decades, sectarianism lies not far below the surface in far too many minds.
St Patrick's is not unique in being the focus of such hatred. Over the years there have been incidents of defilement on churches of all faiths.
Even the Jewish synagogue and graves in the City Cemetery have been daubed with paint or been smashed.
This religious intolerance - exemplified also by hate crimes against individuals because of their creed - is a blot on the reputation of a province where people still profess piety in large numbers.
We can add attacks on Orange halls into this litany of hatred, for the Orange Order, in spite of its political overtones, is essentially a religious organisation.
It seems that some people on all sides of the community cannot see the paradox in professing their faith through attacks on others - in most instances different Christian denominations - with whom they have only the slightest theological differences.
We cannot claim to want religious liberty, while denying it to others.
As we fully enter election campaigning, our politicians need to make it clear that whatever their differences they are united in condemning sectarianism and its corrosive influence on our lives.