More than 100 Romanian Gypsies who suffered racist attacks and intimidation in Belfast are being flown back home at taxpayer expense, the Northern Ireland government said Tuesday.
The news came as police arrested three young men suspected of smashing the windows of a Protestant church that provided emergency
shelter to the immigrants last week. That vandalism overnight mirrored a wave of earlier attacks on the residences of Romanians in working-class Protestant parts of south Belfast.
Northern Ireland housing minister Margaret Ritchie said 25 of the 117 Romanians targeted by stone-throwing extremists have already been flown back to Romania, while most of the rest were expected to leave soon. All were having their temporary housing and flights paid by the government's Housing Executive.
She said only 14 planned to stay in Belfast, where Eastern European immigrants housed in the poorest Protestant districts frequently have suffered hostility ranging from bigoted graffiti to broken windows.
"The fact is the vast majority of them, if not all, want to return home," Ritchie said.
She said the anti-Romanian violence demonstrated that parts of Northern Ireland still view other ethnic groups with hatred, despite more than a decade of peacemaking between the territory's British Protestant majority and its Irish Catholic minority.
"The prize of peace has surely to be a community at ease with itself and welcoming to others," she said.
Ritchie said she was "saddened but not shocked" that stone-throwers had damaged the evangelical Protestant church hall that offered emergency shelter last week to the Romanians.
Police later arrested three men, all aged 20, at houses in a nearby street on suspicion of smashing windows of the City Church. A politician who represents the area, Alex Maskey, said surveillance cameras had captured two suspects throwing stones at the church and then running back to their home around the corner.
But Pastor Malcolm Morgan, the City Church minister who arrived Tuesday to find its windows shattered and the front door damaged, said he was pleased to have offered Christian aid - and would do again, as often as necessary, regardless of the damage his church
"I was just thrilled that we, as a church, were able to respond last week, and we would do the same tomorrow," he said.
Three Protestant teens and men aged 15 to 21 have already been charged with intimidating Romanians from their homes during nighttime threats by street gangs that began in early June. Police said Tuesday they were questioning two more youths aged 15 and 16 on suspicion of involvement.
Witnesses said some members of the stone-throwing gangs claimed
to be members of a British racist paramilitary group, Combat 18, and shouted threats to burn the Romanians out of their homes or slit their children's throats.
Over the past decade of peace and prosperity in Belfast, several thousand Asian, African and Eastern European immigrants have settled in the roughest Protestant districts of the city, where rents are lowest and empty properties plentiful. Outlawed Protestant gangs for decades have intimidated or attacked Irish Catholics who try to settle in such areas.
The Northern Ireland police commander, Chief Constable Hugh Orde, rejected claims that his officers took too long to respond to emergency calls from the Romanians.
"My officers were routinely at those calls within 10 minutes, and on one occasion they were there within seconds," Orde said.