Reports that a group of people dressed as Ku Klux Klan members posed outside an Islamic prayer house are being investigated as a hate incident, police have said.
Images circulating on social media purport to show individuals dressed as members of the far-right group in a town close to Belfast over the weekend.
The KKK is a group based in the southern United States which was responsible for lynchings and brutal murders of thousands of black people.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) inspector Richard Murray said: “Hate crime, in all its forms, is totally unacceptable.
“It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to ensure that we live in a society where diversity is respected.”
The suspected incident happened in the County Down town of Newtownards.
The inspector added: “We received a report around 5pm yesterday, Sunday 28 October, about a group of people dressed as KKK members in the vicinity of Greenwell Street in the town on Saturday night.
“We are also aware of images that are circulating that show people dressed as Ku Klux Klan members.
“Our inquiries are ongoing, and we are treating this as a hate incident at this time.”
Alliance Party Stormont Assembly member Kellie Armstrong said the group drank in a local bar with their masks off and CCTV evidence could be available.
She added: “Everyone knows exactly what the KKK stands for.
“The KKK represents a brand of hatred not wanted or welcome in the area.
“This group did not simply dress up for Halloween, rather they deliberately posed outside the prayer house in Newtownards.
“This is a clear demonstration of aggression and bullying towards one particular religion and that is a hate crime.”
Opinion has been divided across social media about whether or not this should be regarded as a hate crime.
Editor Jamie Bryson wrote: “The ridiculous KKK stunt was offensive, uncalled for and utterly shameful. However, those calling it a ‘hate crime’ and demanding prosecutions need to settle down. If we are going to start prosecuting every offensive costume because it’s popular to do so then that’s dangerous.”
However, Sara Neill posted: “It’s similar to someone wearing a Nazi unit in front of a Jewish synagogue... it’s making people frightened.”
Dr Raied Al-Wazzan from the Belfast Islamic centre on photos appearing to show people in KKK costume outside N’ards Islamic prayer house.”
Another user @Macerty tweeted: “You just don’t get 12 KKK costumes late at night in Newtownards just for the craic! Premeditated, out of order and entirely offensive to a vulnerable religious community.”
Last year a pig’s head was placed outside the same centre in Newtownards.
This comes as the new figures show that hate crime has more than doubled in five years and rose by almost a fifth in 2017/18 on the previous year.
Police in England and Wales recorded a 17% rise in incidents in the latest period, with three quarters – 71,251 – recorded as race hate crimes.
In total, there were 94,098 offences.
Data from the Home Office showed 12% of hate crimes – 11,638 – targeted sexual orientation, 9%, or 8,336, were religious hate crimes, and 8%, or 7,226, targeted people living with a disability.
Some 1,651 (2%) were transgender hate crimes.
Religious hate crime saw the sharpest rise, with a 40% increase from 5,949 incidents in 2016/17.