A Catholic church in Northern Ireland was vandalized Tuesday morning with sectarian graffiti, upsetting parishioners and local leaders.
"We never had a problem like this before. There was something very minor about five or six years ago but this is completely new to us,” Msgr. Bryan McCanny, pastor of St. Mary's in Limavady, fewer than 20 miles east of Derry, told BBC News NI.
"Parishioners are very upset about it. It's depressing that things like this should happen when we are enjoying peace.”
“The two police officers who arrived this morning helped to clean the paint off the door,” he added.
Paramilitary slogans from an anti-Catholic group marked a door and some of the walls of St Mary’s July 31. A large crucifix outside of the church was also painted on.
The graffiti read UDA and UFF. The Ulster Defence Association is an Ulster loyalist vigilante group founded in 1971 whose paramilitary front organization is the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
The UDA is considered a terrorist organization by the United Kingdom, and between the late 1960s and 2007 it carried out more than 250 killings, with most of the victims Catholic civilians.
Msgr. McCanny said recent weeks have seen an increase in graffiti, and that “it needs nipped in the bud. Limavady has always been a respectful town. We don't want the peace disturbed.”
The Northern Irish police are treating the incident as a sectarian hate crime.
Caoimhe Archibald, Member of the Legislative Assembly for East Londonderry, called the incident a “disgraceful attack.”
Archibald, a member of the Irish republican party Sinn Féin, said the attack “ comes after an increase in the number of paramilitary flags being flown and a surge in kerb painting in the town.”
"I would urge all elected and community leaders within unionism to show leadership in order to bring an end to the tensions in the area caused by marking territory in this way."
Aaron Callan, a concillor of the Democratic Unionist Party, said the incident was “disgusting and vile and should be rightly condemned by everyone. There is no place for this kind of behaviour in our society, be it an attack on a chapel, church or an orange hall."
And Ulster Unionist Party councillor Darryl Wilson told BBC News NI that “I'm saddened and angered to see another attack on a community building within my borough.”
Religious disputes have long been part of the history of Northern Ireland, which is predominantly Protestant and is part of the United Kingdom, while the majority-Catholic Republic of Ireland gained its independence in 1916.
The region has had ongoing religiously and politically based conflicts, most notably “the Troubles”, which included violent clashes that lasted from the late ‘60s until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was struck.
Since 1998, there has been only sporadic sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
In October 2017, the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force made threats which forced four Catholic families to flee their homes at a social housing project in Belfast.
Recent demographic figures have suggested that Catholics will likely outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland by 2021. According to the last census, in 2011, Protestants outnumbered Catholics in Northern Ireland by just three percent.