Holy statues have been smashed in a number of locations amid a warning over the potential for serious loyalist sectarian violence.
In Kilkeel, County Down, vandals broke through the front door and smashed statues of St Anthony, Our Lady of the Angels and an angel at a water font given to the church by schoolchildren in 1961. Stained-glass windows were also smashed. Further damage was caused to crosses, the Stations of the Cross and pews, while the local priest’s car was also vandalised.
It followed a serious sectarian incident last weekend when several shots were fired at two parked cars in the nearby village of Clough. The cars’ windscreens were smashed, but no-one was injured in the attack.
The parish priest of Upper Mourne, Fr Michael Murray, said he was “devastated” after the attack on his church. He said he “couldn’t believe” the damage caused. “It just took my breath away,” he said.
Sinn Féin councillor Sean Doran said he was “saddened and shocked” at the attack. “I think it is just another way to raise sectarian tensions in the area coming up to the marching season,” he said. “I think all right-thinking people from all sides of the community would condemn it.”
The PSNI later claimed the attack was not sectarian and refused to describe it as a hate crime.
Elsewhere, a memorial to a local suicide victim in west Belfast was vandalised when a statue of the Virgin Mary was broken away from it. A photograph later appeared showing the statue on top of a giant loyalist bonfire at nearby Lanark Way, before it was found in pieces on the Falls Road.
And tourists had to be warned to stay away from ‘Eleventh Night’ bonfires after two Dutch visitors to Belfast were told to specify their religious affiliation by paramilitaries guarding the site.
A spokesperson for Republican Network for Unity warned people to remain vigilant over the summer marching season.
“We have seen a coalition of mainstream Unionism and paramilitary Loyalism come together to bring pressure to bear on the issue of sectarian parades,” they said.
“This may have emboldened certain racist and sectarian elements to surface and we would urge caution and vigilance”.