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Paris atrocity a grim reminder of religious war in our midst


Poignant memorial: candles have been lit at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, for the Paris victims

Poignant memorial: candles have been lit at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, for the Paris victims

Poignant memorial: candles have been lit at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, for the Paris victims

If anyone in Northern Ireland is still in denial about the evil of the murder of 12 people in Paris by militant Islamists, he or she should look no further than St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.

In this sacred spot at the heart of our capital city, 12 candles have been lit, one for each of the victims who died at the massacre of journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the policemen who were trying to guard them.

The Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev John Mann, spoke on behalf of people from all religious backgrounds, and of none, when he said: "Our hearts go out to all who have been personally affected, and we shall continue to pray for all who live under the threat of violence."

It may be tempting for some people here to believe that the murder of 12 people in Paris is somehow a "French" problem, or that it is a matter affecting mainly journalists.

Sadly, it affects all of us because the Paris atrocity was an attack on the freedom of people everywhere to hold their own views about religion, politics and culture.

That is not to say that "anything goes" but, even though I do not agree with much of what passes for religion and politics in these islands, I would defend totally the right of people to hold such views.

This is not just a matter of defending my own profession. Journalism has its own bad apples, but by and large I have always felt privileged to be a journalist and to work with some very talented and courageous people who are prepared to state in public what many people are thinking in private.

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I should also underline that, while some figures of authority find the Press a pestilent nuisance and would prefer to curb its comments, many politicians and other leaders in Church and State accept that our criticism of them is part of the price to be paid for a free press, which is a cornerstone of our democracy.

However, the Paris murders go beyond even that. These cold-blooded killings were carried out as a perversion of Islamic teaching. It is a blasphemy to associate the name of God with such evil, but the trouble is that those fanatics who do such things are blind to all reason and to the basic demands of human decency.

Make no mistake about it, we are in the middle of a global religious and cultural conflict about which I have been warning for quite some time.

There was a time in history when a religious war, like the Crusades, was geographically far away, but now this conflict is in our midst.

There have been murderous attacks from Islamist militants in many capitals, including London, Madrid, Ottawa and Sydney, as well as Paris, and there is no knowing where they might strike next.

In the midst of this we must be mindful of the welfare of the vast majority of our Muslim neighbours who do not support such violence. We must also be aware continually of the corroding effect of religious hatred and bigotry in all forms, which has so disfigured our own society.

In so doing we must also continue to acknowledge and applaud all those people, in Paris and elsewhere, who have given their lives for freedom, and also those who continue to display great courage on behalf of such a great cause.

I salute them all.

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