Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Sickening church attacks must be condemned by all

Mindless bigotry: in recent days churches and a war memorial have been attacked in Glenavy

The beheading of the American journalist James Foley by Islamic jihadists was disgusting and barbaric. It also showed what we are up against in this religious war against the West and other alleged "infidels".

This is something which many of us have warned about for some time, but recent events in the Middle East and elsewhere have brought it into sharp focus.

It is a mess which will be with us for a long time, whether we like it or not.

The current crisis underlines the evil power of bad religion. That is something we know about only too well in Northern Ireland, where the toleration of people with different faiths and backgrounds is lamentably low and where some people who ought to know better fail to give a proper lead.

In recent days, there have been attacks on a war memorial and churches in the Glenavy area and, in the past, there have been arson attacks on many places of worship, including my own in north Belfast.

The latest attacks at Glenavy are further evidence of the stupidity, ignorance and bigotry of those in our midst who are defacing not only the symbols of the sacrifice of two World Wars, but also the holy places of different cultures in our society.

A church of any denomination is more than a collection of bricks and mortar. It is the collective witness of a community of faith people and the physical church itself stands on holy ground.

Even people of little, or no, faith are aware of this when they enter a church building, most often nowadays for a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Unless visitors have no sensitivities at all, they will be aware that every church has its own atmosphere.

This is a congregation's recall of past events, as well as individuals' memories of relatives who worshipped there and also an aura of years of prayer and reflection. I was reminded of this during the summer, when I shared in the atmosphere of churches in so many different places.

In South Africa with Christian Aid, I visited a church near Ladysmith, which seemed at first to be nothing more than a tin shack, because the apartheid government had torn down the original 'black' church and had not replaced it. Yet I spent time with local Zulu women in this small building, which was their place of worship where they took Communion once a month from their visiting bishop.

It was to them – and to me – holy ground. A couple of weeks later, I was in Galway where, for the first time, I visited the beautiful and lively Anglican St Nicholas Church, where Christopher Columbus had once worshipped. Not far away, the joint Presbyterian-Methodist church is currently thriving, partly from the influx of immigrants, and across the harbour is St Mary's Priory in Claddagh, where my late and good friend Walter Hegarty, a former banker from Derry, was a serving member of the Dominican Order.

Last week, with my wife and daughter, I had a most enjoyable five days "touring" London, during which we visited – among many other fascinating places – Westminster Abbey during Evensong and also St Paul's Cathedral. Amid such beauty and historic splendour, I was reminded once again that churches of all kinds are part of our individual and community heritage and that they should be cherished as such.

Those who attack any church, or members of any faith – either verbally or physically – should be condemned utterly, because each incident is an attack on the Almighty, whoever, or whatever, you picture God to be. Even those who claim to have no faith at all will understand what I am talking about.

Brady retires: Cardinal deserves the quiet life

Most people, like me, believe that he should have resigned long ago, but he carried on, with great stoicism, on his lonely path.

Sean Brady, like all of us, has made mistakes, but at heart he is a decent man, who was a priest and Primate in very difficult circumstances.

No doubt he will now appreciate a quiet retirement.

Taoiseach's death: Reynolds played a visionary role

The death of Albert Reynolds is a reminder that this former taioseach did not receive enough credit in later life for his visionary role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

I talked to him in depth when I was researching my biography of the then Archbishop Robin Eames, who worked closely with Reynolds and Sir John Major, another underrated figure in the peace process. Albert Reynolds was also an engaging human being and a great raconteur. May he rest in peace.

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