Belfast Telegraph

Protestant church leaders say Pope visit could 'help build bridges' in Northern Ireland

By Gareth Cross

A Papal visit to Northern Ireland could help promote peace and reconciliation, Protestant church leaders have said.

In a letter to Pope Francis the church leaders said that the Pope would be welcomed if he chooses to come north during his planned visit to the Republic in August.

The contents of the letter were revealed in the latest edition of The Irish Catholic newspaper.

It was sent last December by Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop Richard Clarke, Presbyterian Moderator Dr Noble McNeely, Methodist President Dr Laurence Graham, and the President of the Irish Council of Churches Bishop John McDowell.

"The potential that a visit to Northern Ireland could have in promoting peace and reconciliation throughout the island cannot be underestimated," it read.

Pope Francis is visiting Ireland in August for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.

It takes place from August 22 to 26.

It will be the first Papal visit to Ireland since Pope John Paul visited in 1979.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme Dr Laurence Graham said the visit could help "build bridges" in Northern Ireland.

"There are two key things in the letter, his attendance would enhance and affirm family at the of heart of society, and secondly we felt that the visit had the potential to help promote peace and reconciliation throughout the island, which can not be underestimated and could help build bridges in Northern Ireland," he said.

Though Dr Graham stressed the letter was not an invitation he said Pope Francis would be very welcome should he choose to visit.

"The letter says we understand you may well be coming to the Republic, it was a letter of welcome, to say we would be very glad if you came.

"We wanted to celebrate it as it would be an affirmation for our Roman Catholic friends and neighbours.

"We wrote because we thought it was a good idea."

Ex-priest and former policing board member Denis Bradley said he did not think the visit would be a game-changer, but acknowledged it was an impactful gesture from the Protestant church leaders

"I think it wouldn't have happened 20 years ago, that's the real game changer," he said.

"A Pope is an important person but he's not Jesus Christ and he's not God, he'll live and die."

"It doesn't change our reality, we as people have to face into the future and decide what our future will be together."

Former political adviser and DUP founding member Wallace Thompson said he did not see how the visit could be welcomed.

"His claims would cause me very significant concern," Mr Thompson said.

"I'm opposed to any visit over the border on spiritual and doctrinal grounds because of those claims, you can overegg the idea that it might take us forward politically.

"I'm at a loss as to how anyone committed to the Protestant reformed cause could say they would like the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to come visit us."

Dr Graham said that a welcome was not an endorsement of the Pope's views.

"I disagree with many of the Pope's doctrinal claims," he said.

"I'm an evangelical, but I fail to see what that has to do with saying to somebody 'you are welcome to come to Northern Ireland'.

"It's not about agreement or saying we're all the same, it's about saying 'you are welcome here'."

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