By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Workers at a multicultural centre in Belfast targeted by arsonists for the second time need people from across the North to stand beside them, a trustee of the charity said.
Police said they are treating an overnight fire at the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association property in Donegall Pass in the south of the city as suspected arson and a hate crime.
It is the second time the building has been targeted after it was extensively damaged in a racist arson attack last year.
Association trustee Muhammad Atif said the latest fire will not deter it from carrying out its charity work.
He said he was left speechless after hearing of the attack on the building, where repair work from last year’s arson was still ongoing.
Speaking from the scene, he said: “It is just so unfortunate that within one year we have come to the building again and [are] having to report exactly the same thing – another arson attack.
“We were recovering from the last one. The building has been undergoing a lot of repair work. The roof was only finished this week and now we are back to square one.
“We have been told it was attacked last night. We don’t know how extensive the damage is. We haven’t been given the access. But, looking at it, it is not small.”
Mr Atif added: “The police called me and I knew that something was wrong immediately. They told me the building was on fire.
“I could not speak afterwards. I was speechless for a good few minutes. I couldn’t sleep all night.
“We think we are going to need all the support we had last time from the community, all over Northern Ireland, cross-community, to come around and help us. In fact, we need more than help – we need them to stand beside us.”
The centre is home to food, clothing and furniture banks.
Mr Atif said: “We have been working very, very hard since the last fire in rebuilding.
“We have been working from our houses. We help asylum seekers, the homeless. We don’t judge people. We don’t ask them where they are from or why do they need help.
“We will continue. We will not stop. The last fire didn’t stop us. The attacks on our cars didn’t stop us. This won’t stop us. It actually gives us more reasons to do it.
“I am hoping the authorities get to the bottom of it, get the culprits and put them behind bars.”
Superintendent Gerard Pollock said: “Police were made aware of a fire at the building at around 1.20am this morning.
“Officers attended along with colleagues from Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, who extinguished the blaze.
“This is the second fire at this location since January 2021 and we have therefore commenced a major investigation led by detectives based at Musgrave Police station.
“Police are treating the fire as suspected arson at this time and a hate crime.”
Mr Pollock continued: “I would appeal to anyone with information or who noticed any suspicious activity in the area late last night or early this morning to contact detectives at Musgrave on 101, quoting reference number 70 08/04/22.
“Officers remain, however, working at the scene with specialist fire investigators to determine the cause of the fire.”
Much of the roof of the historic building was destroyed last January.
A crowdfunding drive to support the centre raised tens of thousands of pounds.