By Press Association 2020

Police believe a fire that extensively damaged a multicultural centre in Belfast was started deliberately.

Officers are treating the blaze at the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association property on Donegall Pass in the south of the city as a hate crime.

Vehicles belonging to people working at the centre have previously been vandalised in hate crime incidents.

More than 50 firefighters fought the blaze, which started at around 9pm on Thursday. Seven fire appliances were used to bring the flames under control.

The damage to the property was visible on Friday, with much of the roof of the historic building destroyed.

No-one was inside when the fire started and there were no injuries reported.

The building was being used as a food bank, with volunteers distributing packages to vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a statement, the association said it had been on the “receiving end of a lot of hostility and Islamophobia for years”.

It added: “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.”

Stormont Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey visited the centre on Friday afternoon to view the damage and speak to members of the association.

Ms Hargey, who is also an MLA for the area, said she would work to find a temporary home to allow the association to continue its work.

“My concern now as Minister for Communities and also as a local MLA is turning to support the organisation, who are carrying out vital work in south Belfast and indeed across the city, supporting minority ethnic communities but indeed the whole community with essential frontline services, and particularly in the midst of a public health pandemic,” she said.

“I want to work with them in terms of what the department can do to support them and working with other agencies such as Belfast City Council to look at relocating them on an interim basis and to ensure that they can continue the support that they’re providing to the community in the time ahead.”

By David Young – Press Association