Yobs smashed 200-year-old windows at a historic Sheffield church and doused the inside with petrol before trying to set the building alight.
The arson attack happened at St Mary’s the Virgin Church in Beighton in the early hours.
Vicar Michael Healey said today: “If it’s someone who has got an objection to the Christian faith then we want them to come and talk to us about it – it’s a much better solution than burning down a building.”
The ground floor front windows of the 400-year-old Grade II-listed church were smashed by vandals and petrol poured inside.
A stone ledge where petrol was poured was set alight, filling the church with thick smoke – which set off the alarms and alerted the fire service to the blaze.
A wooden cross was scorched by the flames but Mr Healey said it was lucky the blaze had not spread to the carpeted floors or the church could have been destroyed.
He said parishioners at the church, on Church Lane, have been left ‘shell-shocked’.
Church leaders are now considering putting metal bars on the windows in a bid to prevent further attacks.
Mr Healey warned: “It could have been much worse.
“The building could have been burnt down completely, or people could have been killed if there had been anyone inside so it’s important that the person or people who did this are found so they can be helped and we can stop this from happening again.
“We do think it was a premeditated incident. But it is hard to know if the person or people did it because they wanted to set fire to a building or because they have something against Christianity.
“We want the church to be a welcoming place for everyone in the community – so this has come as a shock.
“We are thinking about putting bars up on the windows because we don’t want this to happen again – but that would make the church seem less welcoming and if someone is intent on setting fire to it, bars on a window aren’t going to stop that from happening.”
Head church warden Michael Griffith said the church ‘means a lot’ to everyone in the community.
He added: “It’s been here for over 400 years, and is a very historic building.
“This is a tight-knit community and so the fact that someone tried to burn it down has come as enough of a shock.
“I think people would have been completely devastated if it had been lost.”
A South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue spokesman confirmed the fire is believed to have been started deliberately and said the blaze was extinguished within 30 minutes.
South Yorkshire Police have now launched an investigation into the arson attack and are appealing for witnesses to come forward.
A police spokesman said: “Officers were called to reports of a fire at a church in Beighton at about 1am on Sunday.
“It is believed that attempts were made to deliberately start a fire after one of the church windows was smashed.
“Police are appealing for anyone who was in the area at the time or who saw anyone acting suspiciously in the area that evening to call police.”
The arson attack did not stop parishoners worshipping as normal at the church on Sunday.
Mr Healey said he and the congregation prayed for those who carried out the attack as he believes they ‘need help’.
“We want them to know that Jesus loves them,” he added.
n Anyone with information that could help the police investigation should call 101 quoting incident number 127 of 14 February 2016.