Foster and O'Neill condemn 'despicable attack'
Police have confirmed they believe a fire at the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association building was started deliberately.
PSNI Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said police are also treating the incident as a hate crime.
He appealed for anyone with information to come forward and said police had begun an investigation into the fire and were working alongside colleagues in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS).
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill condemned last night’s attack.
They said: “First and foremost our thoughts are with all those across the community who use the centre. The Belfast Multi-Cultural Association is a vital hub for minority communities in the city, and this mindless destruction will have a huge impact on many people’s lives.
“This was a despicable attack. It not only caused significant damage to what is a well-used community facility, but it also endangered the lives of the firefighters who had to make sure no one was inside the building and battle to extinguish the blaze.
“We and our Executive colleagues are committed to doing everything we can to eradicate racism and hate crime. It is vital that everyone in our society makes a stand against such hatred and intolerance, and we would appeal to anyone with information about who may have been responsible for this abhorrent attack to contact the PSNI.”
Located in the south of the city, the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association said it was heartbroken and shocked after a devastating fire broke out at its Belfast building.
The organisation said it believed the incident was deliberate. It said it had been on the receiving end of "hostility and Islamophobia for years".
A spokesperson for the NIFRS said it responded to “a well-developed fire” at a building on Donegall Pass around 8.30pm on Thursday.
The building, a former Presbyterian Church is occupied by the Belfast Multi Cultural Association and was formerly the home of the now closed Water Margin Chinese restaurant. The building was badly damaged but no one was in the building at the time.
Seven pumping appliances and three specialist appliances were deployed to the scene to deal with the incident.
Around 50 personnel were at the scene, breathing apparatus, jets and high reach appliances were used to deal with the fire and bring it under control. Appliance and crew members were reduced but were still at the scene as of 11pm to maintain safety.
Frank Belfast's Lord Mayor Frank McCoubrey, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, offered his support to all those affected.
“I was shocked and saddened to hear news of the fire; while it is a blessing that no one was injured, this is a devastating blow for the volunteers who have been using this base to serve their community and others, and provide much-needed support to some of the most vulnerable in our society,” he said.
“The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and it is important that the investigation is completed; but it is sad to hear members of the Association speak this morning of ongoing hostility and tensions. As First Citizen, I want to offer them my support.
“There is no place in society for hate. Belfast is a diverse city and we are much richer for it. Throughout the ongoing pandemic, I have been heartened by the overwhelming sense of community spirit right across our city and I am certain that the people of south Belfast and beyond will unite in their support of Belfast Multi-Cultural Association, and support them as they work to restore the vital services they provide to the local community.”
A spokesman for the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association said he was told early indications suggested the incident was deliberate. He said the building had been subjected to hate attacks in the past.
"It is heartbreaking when the whole building is nearly gone. What we are doing here is to help the community," he told the BBC.
"If it is deliberate, it is a really shameful act."
In a Facebook post, the organisation added: "We are immensely grateful to the fire services who were there promptly and we look forward to hearing from the investigations that will follow.
"We are heartbroken and shocked by these events but it will not deter us from any of our work: our volunteers despite shaken are determined not to let down the communities we support.
"Thank you to everyone who have been in contact to check up on us and extended their support and solidarity. We are immensely grateful for it all."
Sinn Fein MLA Deirdre Hargey said she was shocked to learn of the fire and thanked the fire service for its efforts.
“The cause of the fire had not yet been determined but this will come as a major blow to the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association and to all those who use its services," she said.
“I’m deeply concerned that people at the centre have been the target of hate crime in recent months. There is an onus therefore on the emergency services to investigate if this devastating fire was started deliberately.
“I’m sure the community in south Belfast will rally round and support them in the time ahead to continue their work.”
The NIFRS spokesperson added that an investigation would be carried out once the fire was totally extinguished and safe for fire crews to enter.
Fire at BMCA
Peace be upon you all, Unfortunately tonight we have some awful news, after being at the receiving end of a lot of hostility and Islamophobia for quite some time: tonight BMCA is ablaze. We don’t have any details about how this has happened, we will share them as soon as we know. Fortunately none of our volunteers were injured. We are immensely grateful to the fire services who were there promptly and we look forward to hearing from the investigations that will follow. We are heartbroken and shocked by these events but it will not deter us from any of our work: our volunteers despite shaken are determined not to let down the communities we support. Thank you to everyone who have been in contact to check up on us and extended their support and solidarity. We are immensely grateful for it all. BMCA team https://www.belfastlive.co.uk/news/fire-service-called-tackle-blaze-19629400Posted by Belfast Multi-Cultural Association on Thursday, January 14, 2021