445 attacks on Northern Ireland places of worship in last three years
There have been more than 400 recorded attacks at places of worship across Northern Ireland in the last three years, new figures show.
In total, 445 crimes were recorded as criminal damage to religious buildings, churchyards or cemeteries across Northern Ireland's 11 policing districts.
On average, crimes against places of worship take place here every two-and-a-half days, prompting calls for immediate action to protect churches and other religious buildings.
Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church in south Belfast sustained considerable damage after two arson attacks in July 2016.
More recently, white paint was thrown at Sacred Heart Church in Ballyclare on Easter Sunday this year.
The figures were obtained by the Christian Action Research and Education (Care NI) under the Freedom of Information Act.
Care NI has written to leaders of all political parties asking for more support to be made available to religious buildings.
It has called for a specific manifesto commitment to set up an initiative like the Place Of Worship Fund, which helps protect religious buildings in England and Wales.
Created in July 2016, the fund provides financial resources for places of worship so they can buy security measures such as CCTV, fencing and lighting.
Currently there is no comparable scheme in Northern Ireland.
The clerk of session of Saintfield Road, Dr Alistair McCracken, said his congregation would support any government measures to protect churches.
"Following two arson attacks on our church in July 2016, the initial response was one of anger and frustration quickly followed by asking, 'Why?'
"Then came a sort of grieving period as we grappled with the practicalities of how to manage the restoration of the buildings.
"In time that was replaced with excitement, anticipation and hope as a newly refurbished building took shape.
"Looking back as a congregation, we most firmly believe that out of what men meant for evil came good and blessing.
"As a congregation we would welcome any initiatives by to protect churches from further attacks."
Ulster Unionist MLA Robbie Butler backed the call.
"Attacking a church is an attack against its entire congregation," he said.
"Unfortunately, in Northern Ireland the scourge of sectarianism remains and this has been the motivation behind many attacks on churches.
"While all crimes motivated by hate are particularly despicable, and perpetrators of them must be pursued and detained, as a society we should also be ensuring that churches have the means and the support they require to protect themselves from attack."