Would they object if it was a mosque?
Minister hits back as row over church plan deepens
The war of words over redevelopment plans for a listed Belfast church deepened today, as a clergyman hit out at objectors to the city centre project.
Rev Keith Drury, of May Street Presbyterian, asked if heritage campaigners would be so vociferous if the proposals involved a mosque.
The minister made his comments after two leading UK conservation experts voiced their opposition to a property company's blueprint for the 177-year-old church building.
The firm -Barnabas Ventures Limited - wants to incorporate the existing structure within a new glass-fronted six-storey apartment and office block. An adjacent listed hall would also be pulled down and a high-rise block built beside the church.
The two heritage experts spoke out after paying a visit to May Street.
The Director of the Historic Chapels Trust, Dr Jennifer Freeman, said: " I was deeply shocked to see the plans for the church.
"What an insult to a fine building! The developers, architects and the city of Belfast must think again."
Architectural historian and author of 'The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape', Professor James Stevens Curl, claimed the scheme "would utterly overwhelm one of Belfast's last remaining classical churches".
He added: "It is painfully obvious that the proposals arrogantly pay no regard whatsoever to listed building and conservation area policy."
Barnabas Ventures and congregation leaders insist that the redevelopment scheme offers the only realistic hope of retaining a working church at the location.
Mr Drury said heritage groups were "watchdogs of the past" but were not offering any practical proposals for the building's future.
"I have been asking myself if people would be more guarded in their comments if this was a mosque," the clergyman added.
"We are proposing to open the building, allowing people to enjoy the heritage of the past within the environment of today.
"These plans are the only way to go forward. The easy option would be to sell it but we want to continue our work here."
The minister also stated that funding would not be available to maintain the church, if the Barnabas Ventures does not proceed.
The Presbyterian Church is opposed to accepting lottery money - a chief source of heritage grant-aid.