Belfast Telegraph

God save us if this religious lunacy is allowed to triumph

By Fionola Meredith

Jim Allister is on the warpath again. This time, he’s riled because a marcher in the Pride parade held up a sign saying ‘Jesus had two dads and he turned out fine’.

Jim’s already been on to the Parades Commission and the police and he wants the Pride organisers to be held to account for this “blasphemous” placard.

Yet this poster had none of the dumb, provocative crudity of the sign reading ‘Jesus is a fag’ carried by a marcher in the 2006 parade.

It was mischievous rather than aggressive, or antagonistic, and hardly merits the full force of Allister’s spittle-flecked rage.

Is it such an alien concept to Jim that God might have a sense of humour? Or perhaps Jim imagines Him in his own incarnation: angry, dour, quick to take offence and intolerant of difference.

Lord of the Dance, or Judge Dredd? I know which one I’d rather meet at the pearly gates.

Allister argues that “such sentiments would not be permitted if Mohammed had been the object of the marcher’s mockery”.

It’s true that, in some quarters, there is a reluctance to offend Muslims, stemming from a curious mixture of uneasy political correctness and unspoken fear of militant Islam.

But that’s less of a factor here in Northern Ireland, where the loud, hectoring voice of fundamentalist Christianity tends to drown out the perspectives of all other faith groups, including the Christian groups — such as Changing Attitude Ireland, which campaigns for inclusivity in the churches — that were happy to take part in Pride.

And besides, I didn’t see any Muslim protesters giving the marchers gyp on Saturday afternoon, so the comparison is irrelevant.

It’s a very different picture across the water, where a Christian electrician has just been suspended from his job for displaying a palm cross on the dashboard of his van.

That would never happen in Northern Ireland — the prevailing socio-religious climate means that all cross-toting professionals are free to go about their business unchallenged for the foreseeable future.

In fact, you could probably have a big, flashing neon cross on top of your van and no one would bat an eyelid. Satanists might want to keep their inverted pentagrams out of sight, though.

So, yes, there are double standards at work here — moral double standards — but they aren’t the ones that Allister refers to.

He appears to have no problem with Christian protesters haranguing gay marchers that they’re going to burn in hell. But, according to Allister, it is unacceptable for a gay person to respond — even if it’s a witty, tongue-in-cheek riposte.

The message is: “If it doesn’t fit with my moral code, it’s wrong and abhorrent and you will be made to pay.” The same narrow, reductive attitude prevails in another feature of life in Northern Ireland — the behaviour of anti-abortion activists.

On Monday, police received a call from the FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association) offices in Belfast city centre after an anti-abortion protester was allegedly pushed to the ground.

Now, I have no further details of what happened on this particular occasion. But I am familiar with the reprehensible tactics used by members of anti-abortion group Precious Life, which stages daily protests outside the FPA, an organisation that offers independent counselling to women facing crisis pregnancies.

Vulnerable young women trying to access FPA services are forced to run the gauntlet of this hectoring crew, who thrust foul images of aborted foetuses into their hands, tell them not to murder their babies and often follow them down the street afterwards, expanding on their monomaniacal theme.

They’re indiscriminate, too. Patrick Yu, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities (NICEM), which is housed in the same building as the FPA, said that one of his colleagues was followed by a protester because she refused to take a leaflet. Yu has gone to the police three times about this sort of harassment. Yet Precious Life has been allowed to get away with such outrageous behaviour for years.

It was the same when the FPA had offices on University Street. I would always avoid driving my young daughter home from primary school that way, because the trees lining the street were dripping with their ghastly photographs.

Regardless of what you believe about abortion (a debate that this country consistently and irresponsibly shies away from), there is no reasonable defence for such extreme tactics. Believing that you are on the side of rightness, of truth, of God, is not an acceptable excuse.

There was another placard at the Pride parade, in response to the religious extremists. It simply read ‘Jesus protect me from your followers’.

Amen to that.

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