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How news of Papal visit to Northern Ireland sees rise of religious intolerance again

By Alf McCreary

It is no surprise that some people are objecting already to a possible Papal Visit to Armagh in August 2018. Despite the warm welcome expressed across the denominational and political spectrum, you can always be sure that in Northern Ireland there are those who will totally oppose such a visit .

A good example was a letter to this newspaper from the Reverend John Gray of the Free Presbyterian Church in Enniskillen.

He stated: "The main reason why we don't need Pope Francis in Ulster is because of the claims of the Papacy, which are unscriptural and blasphemous."

He added: "I am not surprised that the main so-called 'Protestant' churches in Ireland have welcomed this proposed visit.

"For years now the Church of Ireland, the Irish Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church have been courting the Church of Rome, treating her as a Christian Church.

"It is sad that they have forgotten what their forefathers believed and - more importantly - what the Bible teaches."

The Reverend Gray is entitled to his opinion, though I am not sure that he speaks for anyone else in an official capacity.

Neither do I believe that the main Churches here have been "courting the Church of Rome". On the contrary, anyone who studies the Reformed Churches will know that they keep strictly to their teachings.

Some people may ask why the single voice of a Free Presbyterian minister should be given the oxygen of publicity, but I believe that Mr Gray's views represent those of other objectors to the Pope's visit.

The authorities here must be prepared for any possible demonstrations at Armagh, but the majority of people want the Pope's visit to go off peacefully, without the nonsense that characterized so much of the late Reverend Dr Paisley's earlier ministry, and well into his old age.

People forget that Paisley led a demonstration outside Church House in Belfast when the former Moderator the Reverend Dr Ken Newell invited the then Roman Catholic Primate Cardinal Sean Brady as his personal guest at the opening night of the Presbyterian General Assembly.

Ian Paisley also took part in protests against the visit of Pope Benedict to the United Kingdom. This may also be overlooked by those who conveniently wish to forget the dark side of Ian Paisley, as well as his better points.

One would like to think that in today's society such bigotry and division would be fading away, but not so. There continues to be deep divisions over religion in Northern Ireland, and in many other parts of the world.

What fascinates and also saddens me is the way in which people of a particular faith, or faith interpretation, are so intolerant of others. In the Middle East the savage struggles between Shia and Sunni Muslim continues to destabilize the region, and militant Islam is still intent on killing Christians who do not convert, as it has been for centuries.

Nearer to home, groups like the Free Presbyterian Church, and smaller evangelical sects, have been stridently been opposing ecumenism for years.

I believe that the term "Free" Presbyterian Church is a mis-nomer. The so-called "Free" Presbyterians demand strict adherence to their own particular view of Bible teaching. That seems to me to be rather "unfree".

In some ways they are not alone. In my years as Religion Correspondent for this newspaper I have noticed that all the worshipping groups believe, at heart, that they are right - though thankfully many, though not all, are tolerant of others.

In a democratic society, the Free Presbyterians and others have every right to express their opposition to the Pope's visit, provided they do so in a lawful fashion.

However I also believe that if people are secure in their faith, they don't need to protest about the beliefs of others. Accordingly, any protests about the Pope's visit are not a sign of strength, but rather one of weakness and of a theologically closed mind.

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