Church fire in Armagh unites Catholics, Protestants


CATHOLIC and Protestant church leaders united in condemnation after the burning of a 226 year old Catholic church in Co Armagh. While the blaze has not yet been confirmed as arson, it is suspected that the fire discovered early yesterday morning at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mullavilly was started deliberately.

It was the second oldest Catholic church in the archdiocese of Armagh.

Fire crews from Portadown and Armagh fought desperately to save the church but the blaze was already out of control when they arrived around 3 a.m. Just the four walls, the sacristy and a small office at the back are still standing.

In 1993 its sister church of St Patrick's in the same parish at nearby Stonebridge was burned to the ground in a sectarian attack. During the Troubles, the parochial house at Mullavilly was burned twice, the parochial hall was destroyed and there had been a previous attempt to burn down the church itself. Both churches are in a predominantly loyalist area between Portadown and Armagh city.

Two other Catholic churches, St MacNissis's in Randalstown and the nearby St Comgall's Church in Antrim town were both badly damaged in arson attacks at the weekend.

The members of the congregation were devastated yesterday morning when they woke to the news that their parish church had been destroyed in the overnight blaze. They were joined by church and political leaders, both Protestant and Catholic, and sympathetic neighbours from the Protestant community.

The MP for Newry and Armagh Mr Seamus Mallon, who lives in Markethill a few miles from the chapel, said the weekend spate of attacks on Catholic churches was part of an "orchestrated campaign of provocation".

Mr Mallon, who described feeling deeply saddened after visiting the burnt out church yesterday, added: "That sadness is tinged with anger, great and absolute anger, that a small community like this should be subjected, once again, to the type of ultimate, in terms of sectarian, bigotry that one can find in the north of Ireland. This is Ku Klux Klan stuff.

"There is nothing so overtly sectarian or so blatantly provocative as this type of destructive assault on a place of worship," said Mr Mallon, who urged that this "raw sectarianism is brought to an end, urgently and permanently".

The Ulster Unionist leader, Mr David Trimble, who visited the Mullavilly church yesterday, said: "This sort of thing has got to stop. It is not going to benefit any section of the community.

The Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams, called for calm: "The only way to prevent such events is through a process of dialogue based on equality, which builds trust and breaks down barriers dividing nationalists and unionists."

The Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Sean Brady, said he was sad, shocked and angry at the attack on a peaceful community which was devastated.

Despite this, the archbishop said he was heartened by the support and sympathy offered by all sides of the community.

He urged people to be calm and not allow themselves to be goaded into retaliation: "For over 226 years people have gathered here to hear the message of peace and love, and the same message will go forth from here all the time. We must speak words of peace and do deeds of peace and express our revulsion, our condemnation in a peaceful way.

Dr Brady said he condemned all acts of arson and all acts of violence, no matter who they were directed against.

The Church of Ireland Primate and Archbishop of Armagh, Dr Robin Eames, called for community leaders to speak out against these attacks. "I would urge anyone who has any leadership, any influence through the media, through a political platform, through a religious platform - now is the time when Northern Ireland needs a voice of vision and courage and determination which says look at the cost of another summer like last summer."

The Presbyterian Moderator of the Iveagh Presbytery, the Rev Robin Greer, who visited the charred remains of the church to express sympathy with the Catholic congregation, said: "The burning of any church is a disgrace and there can be no justification whatsoever for action of this type."

Four priests from the Drumcree parish in Portadown described the attack as deplorable and urged people to talk to one another and grow to understand one another.

The SDLP leader, Mr John Hume, speaking from Strasbourg, said it was a sinister development and called on the entire community to unite in condemnation.

The Ulster Unionist MP, Mr William Ross, described the attacks on church buildings and Orange halls as designed to provoke retaliation.

"Those masterminding these events have an interest in causing the maximum tension in the community at large," Mr Ross said.

Mr Martin McGuinness, of Sinn Fein, described the series of church and hall burnings over the weekend as the "lowest form of intimidation".