Police have said they believe a fire at a building that houses the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association (BMCA) was a deliberate hate crime.
The fire started at about 20:30 GMT on Thursday and caused significant damage to the building on Donegall Pass.
It took more than 50 firefighters to control the blaze, which they said was “through the roof” when they arrived.
In a joint statement, the first and deputy first ministers described the attack as “despicable”.
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill said the building is “a vital hub for minority communities in the city” and that the “mindless destruction will have a huge impact on many people’s lives”.
They also condemned the arsonists for endangering the lives of the firefighters “who had to make sure no one was inside the building and battle to extinguish the blaze”.
Cars belonging to people working at the centre have been vandalised in previous hate attacks.
Muhammed Atif from the BMCA said he was “gutted” by the incident.
The damage the fire caused to building was “beyond our expectation”, he added, and would stop the group’s plan to open a community centre.
“What we were doing here was all to serve the community, to help the local community,” he said.
“The whole building is nearly gone – we can’t really do what we were doing.
“We had plans to open a community centre… but obviously nothing is going to happen.”
‘Important hub for communities’
In a post on social media, the BMCA said the fire would “not deter us from out work”.
Dr Livingstone Thompson from the African and Caribbean Support Organisation NI said his group was “truly distressed” by the fire.
“It would send real fear down the hearts of people in the black community and in other ethnic minority communities that we could have minorities targeted like this,” he said.
“The multicultural centre is a very important hub for the interface between local black and minority ethnic organisations as well as a major place of interface for members of the Muslim community,” he said.
“Our hearts go out to the members, the volunteers and others – our thoughts are with them and our support is with them.
“We really hope that the police can get to the bottom of this so that it can be truly, swiftly and effectively addressed.”
Appeal for information
Seven fire engines and three specialist appliances – including high-reach units – were sent to Donegall Pass at about 20:30 GMT.
The fire is understood to have started on the first floor.
Fire service Group Commander William Johnston said firefighters had been deployed from all over Belfast along with one one from Carrickfergus, County Antrim.
He said they searched all of the rooms in the building and no-one was trapped.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Inspector Gavin Kirkpatrick said: “We have begun an investigation and are working alongside our [fire service] colleagues.
“We are also treating this incident as hate crime and appeal to anyone with information to contact us.”
— to www.bbc.co.uk