100 Romanian Gypsies Take Refuge in Belfast Church After String of Violent Attacks

Thugs armed with bricks and bottles forced more than 100 Romanian Gypsies from their Belfast homes in a wave of attacks that sent them fleeing to the safety of a nearby church.

Community leaders in Belfast on Wednesday condemned the attacks, while Romania's government urged British authorities to take measures to avoid more racist violence.

The 20 Romanian families, including one with a 5-day-old baby, first fled to a Belfast church Tuesday after gangs hurling bricks and bottles attacked their homes in a working class neighborhood, according to the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, a local community group. Local authorities moved them to the roomier community center Wednesday morning.

There were no reports of injuries.

"Trouble was brewing for a few days," Malcolm Morgan, the pastor of the City Church, which gave them shelter, told Britain's GMTV. "There have been stones thrown and windows smashed. It is a small group of racist thugs."

The Romanians lugged their possessions in suitcases, bags and large bundles as they left a bus outside the community center. One man carried an accordion, while some women covered their heads with jackets and sweaters, too afraid to be photographed.

Racial tensions in Belfast have risen since an international soccer match between Poland and Northern Ireland in March, said Patrick Yu, a spokesman for the minority group. The violence flared again this week when gangs hurling bottles and Nazi salutes attacked an anti-racism rally.

"There were riots before the match broke out, we had hooligans that used the excuse as revenge — for ethnic cleansing against all migrants in the area," Yu said. "Originally they focus on Polish people, and then go after everyone."

Belfast City council press officer Mark Ashby said the majority of those targeted were Roma, or Gypsies, from Romania.

Some of the families said they planned to return to Romania following their ordeal.

Belfast Lord Mayor Naomi Long condemned the attacks and urged local residents to support their neighbors.

"Each and every citizen has the right to live free from fear and intimidation," Long said. "Belfast, and indeed Northern Ireland as a whole, is changing and we are making great strides towards a bright and shared future. We cannot let a small minority of people detract from that, or allow them to drive people from their homes."

Romania's Foreign Ministry said it "firmly condemns any racist or extremist act and makes an appeal to British authorities to take all necessary measures to prevent a repeat of such cases."

"About 200 Romanian citizens of Roma origin live in the area, from which 115 have left after the recent attacks, some requesting repatriation," the ministry said in a statement.