Christian protesters warn Northern Ireland fans of Sunday football 'shame'
Police were on stand-by in south Belfast yesterday as Free Presbyterian protesters sang hymns, prayed and handed out leaflets to football fans making their way to Northern Ireland's first ever Sunday international game at home.
But there were no major incidents as the demonstrators gathered only a few hundred yards from Windsor Park, though a number of home fans and supporters from their opponents Finland shouted abuse.
The protesters, waving banners and placards urging people to keep the Sabbath holy, staged an hour-long outdoor service as supporters walked along Donegall Avenue. Speaker after speaker condemned football authorities for going ahead with the match despite objections from a number of churches.
One minister accused the Irish Football Association of "conceding to a desire for money and filthy lucre in defiling the Lord's Day" by agreeing to host the European Championship qualifying game.
The IFA has said it had no alternative other than to fulfil the fixture, but the Rev Raymond Robinson from Kesh claimed that it had made little attempt to seek a rescheduling of the match.
He said: "Uefa have made different arrangements for other countries. But I don't think the IFA tried hard enough to bring pressure to bear."
The Evangelical Protestant Society said of the game: "It marks another watershed moment in modern Ulster's increasing rejection of the Lord's Day"
One of the Christians in the protest outside Tyndale Free Presbyterian Church wore a Northern Ireland scarf.
David Johnstone is a former Irish League footballer who currently manages Mid-Ulster League team Moneyslane. He said: "I am here to show my sadness that this game is going ahead. I would never have played football on a Sunday."
The Rev Ian Brown, the Leeds United-supporting minister at the Martyrs' Memorial Church, which was established by the Rev Ian Paisley, said he was a Northern Ireland fan on a Saturday but his loyalties were to the Lord on a Sunday.
"I think it is totally wrong to desecrate the Sabbath like this." he said, adding that there were a number of other football supporters in his church who had stayed away from the game.
"I also take encouragement from the fact that the vast majority of supporters were happy to accept gospel tracts. I think they can understand our position."
Andrew Murdoch from Banbridge said: "I was at my church this morning. The game at Windsor doesn't conflict in any way with my religious beliefs. I don't agree with the protest. They're trying to say that their beliefs are better than mine."
The Rev David McLaughlin of Carryduff Free Presbyterian Church said he was aware many fans had been to Sunday services before coming to the game. "But I think it's difficult to square being in the house of God in the morning and then ignoring the Sabbath in the afternoon," he added.
Police on the ground said most fans who passed the protest had respected the demonstrators and behaved in a dignified manner.
One fan who wouldn't give his name shouted at the protesters: "Catch yourselves on. Whatever happened to democracy? Why can't we play the game on Sunday?"
Hundreds of Finnish fans sang and made offensive gestures as they passed the church. They were accompanied by PSNI Land Rovers. At one point an officer apologised to the Free Presbyterians, saying: "They just don't have a clue what you're doing." The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland branded the game a "desecration of the Lord's Day and a breach of the fourth commandment.
"The playing of sport on a Sunday discriminates against those sportsmen and women who have conscientious scruples on this matter and against supporters who also have objections against sport on the Lord's Day."