Most Protestants would welcome visit by Pope: top Church of Ireland official
A leading Protestant cleric has said the majority of his community would welcome a visit to Northern Ireland by Pope Francis.
Canon Ian Ellis, editor of The Church of Ireland Gazette, was responding to claims that there could be protests by extreme elements if that occurred.
Speaking in the Irish Catholic, Canon Ellis said: "We don't want to live in a country where it's not possible for this (a papal visit) to happen - it's such a good thing, really".
His comments came in response to an article in The Ulster Bulwark, the magazine of the Evangelical Protestant Society (EPS), which was referring to speculation that the head of the Catholic Church might visit Ireland during 2018's World Meeting of Families.
Penned by EPS secretary Wallace Thompson, also a former DUP special adviser, the article hit out at "the usual clamour from the usual suspects for him (the Pope) to visit Northern Ireland", adding: "Sadly, some within Protestant circles who ought to know better have been very quick to issue messages of support."
Mr Thompson described a visit by the pontiff as "controversial and divisive", and said: "If a visit takes place, we will, along with other evangelical Protestant organisations, churches and individuals, exercise our democratic right to express our opposition."
Canon Ellis said that he believed serious opposition to Pope Francis was unlikely.
"I don't think it would be a widespread reaction," he added. "I wouldn't be fearful of protests on any scale."
He also described the Pope as "amazingly popular and a great leader" and said: "My impression is that, on the whole, people really find him a very, very attractive person and a person who speaks openly and freely.
"He's greatly loved - it's not too much to say that."
The Canon also said that protests would be unlikely even if the Pope were to address the Stormont Assembly.
"This is a free world, it's a free country," he said. "We believe in religious freedom and we respect religious leaders, and that's as it should be.
"(A papal visit would be) a very positive thing. I'd be very disappointed if he weren't to come to Northern Ireland. I think it would be a great disappointment to very many people - very many Protestants, as well as to members of the Roman Catholic Church."
The only papal visit to Ireland to date was by Pope John Paul II in 1979.
Over the course of the three days he was here almost three million people turned out to welcome him at five venues: Dublin, Drogheda, Galway, Limerick and Knock.
It was in Drogheda, Co Louth, where the Pope appealed to paramilitaries to lay down their arms and embrace peace.
"I wish to speak to all men and women engaged in violence," the pontiff said at the time.
"I appeal to you, in language of passionate pleading. On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the path of violence and to return to the ways of peace."
His visit to the border county of Louth was the closest the head of the Church got to Northern Ireland. A planned Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh was cancelled because his advisers feared he would be a target for loyalist terrorists.
Just weeks earlier the Queen's cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten had been killed in an IRA bomb attack on his boat in Co Sligo. On the same day 18 soldiers had been killed in an IRA ambush near Warrenpoint, Co Down.
In April 2014 Belfast councillors voted in favour of inviting Pope Francis to the city.