A fire that destroyed a historic church in Salford is being treated as arson, police have said.
Firefighters battled the blaze as it destroyed the roof of the grade II-listed Church of the Ascension, which was built in 1869.
The church in Lower Broughton, which had recently undergone a £250,000 restoration, was almost completely destroyed on Sunday night.
Detectives on Monday launched a criminal investigation into the blaze and said they were treating it as suspicious.
CCTV footage released by police shows a young man running away from the church at around 11pm on Sunday, believed to be the time the fire broke out.
Officers said they believed the culprits forced entry to the church before setting it alight then fled the scene.
DS Karl Dalton, of Greater Manchester police’s Salford borough, said: “We have a team of detectives investigating the circumstances surrounding this large-scale fire which has completely devastated a building at the heart of the community.
“The reckless actions of the person, or people, responsible have caused a great deal of stress and anxiety to many and it is fortunate that no one was injured.
“I am appealing to the public to carefully watch the CCTV footage to see if you can help us identity the person who can be seen leaving the church grounds around the time the fire started.
“We also need to hear from any witnesses to the incident or anyone who believes they have any information.”
Liam Cole, 17, rushed to the church after seeing flames from his nearby home. The fast-food restaurant worker said: “Initially I saw a flash of orange light when I went to the bathroom.
“I ran outside realising it was really close and then I saw it was my local church. Initially it wasn’t that bad but all of a sudden it was engulfed in flames and the roof started falling through.
“There was a lot of ash and smoke from the roof going on the people standing very close.”
He said he ushered away children and elderly people and checked they were not hurt.
A witness told the Manchester Evening News that he saw a group of youths riding away from the church before the fire broke out at around 11pm on Sunday.
Shocked parishioners gathered outside the church building to survey the damage. Many were reduced to tears as they spoke of the recent restoration work and the fundraising process.
The church had raised funds and secured grants with English Heritage and the national lottery over three years for major work to be carried out. It benefited from interior and exterior renovations, new roofing and pointing.
Its website reveals the projects, which also included the creation of a community cafe inside, transformed the once “dilapidated” church into a “fully accessible place of worship”.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Manchester said: “We are shocked and deeply saddened that the beautiful church building of the Ascension in Salford has been gutted by fire.
“The church was a visible sign of God’s presence in the community and has been a place of worship for generations. More recently it had undergone restoration work to equip it for modern use and meet the needs of the local community.
“We would like to thank the emergency services for their swift action in tending to the fire, and the mayor’s office for offers of practical help.”
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