Congregation's anguish after arsonists torch Whiteabbey Methodist Church
A new church hall in north Belfast has been severely damaged in an arson attack just hours after an event to raise money to pay for it had finished.
The congregation of Whiteabbey Methodist Church turned up yesterday morning to a scene of devastation after a fire was started in the kitchen of the hall at the back of the church.
Fire crews were able to stop the blaze spreading to the main church.
While the church was relatively unscathed, the smoke and presence of forensic workers put it out of action as a place of worship yesterday.
Nearby Whiteabbey Presbyterian Church took the congregation in, and allowed them to use its church hall.
Rev Pauline Lorimer of Whiteabbey Methodist Church said she couldn't understand why her church had been attacked.
It has never suffered a serious attack before. She believes that "young hooligans" were behind it.
"They broke in through the front door, they smashed a pane of glass on the door, then appeared to have gone straight through the church into the kitchen, where they set three wee fires," she told the Belfast Telegraph.
"The kitchen is destroyed, and there is a central hall bit which is really badly smoke-damaged.
"We weren't able to have our normal service because forensics were there, plus because of the smell of the smoke.
"So, the Presbyterian church opened up their hall for us just down the road, and we were able to go there. We had a children's show on so we were able to let them do their show."
Rev Lorimer said her congregation were devastated.
"They are really annoyed, the hall has only been open since 2010 and it's really lovely, we take great pride in it," she said.
"We have been fundraising for the last 10 years for the new hall, and to see it all destroyed like that is terrible."
In fact, the congregation had run a fundraising event on Saturday as they are still paying for the hall.
"We won't have paid off the hall until the end of this year, so there are still fundraising events going on," Rev Lorimer said.
"This weekend we had an art sale and coffee morning that only finished on Saturday night – then the place was burnt."
Alliance East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson condemned those responsible for the attack.
"It is disgraceful that anyone would seek to attack a place of worship," he said.
"It is difficult to understand the mindset of those responsible for this despicable crime.
"This was a sickening attack carried out by those with no respect for other people's religious beliefs.
"There is a good relationship between the churches in the area, and I am glad that the local community has worked together to ensure that services could go ahead on Sunday.
"Those responsible must face justice in the courts, so I would urge anybody with any information to contact the police."
A PSNI spokesman appealed for anyone with information about the attack to come forward.