Monday, January 28, 2008

Bigotry undermines role of faiths in ending conflict

THE fiery eloquence of a Belfast evangelist rallying 'true' Protestants to protest against a possible papal visit to Armagh is a painful reminder that religious antagonisms have not gone away in the North.

Fearing that Ulster's hour of danger from Romanism is nigh, hot-gospeller Wallace Thompson heroically took to the RTE airwaves on Tuesday to remind a papist-ridden South that Pope Benedict XVI is the 'anti-Christ'.

In Mr Thompson, the North has thrown up a new Messiah claiming to be even more infallible than either 'Big Ian' Paisley or Pope Benedict.

Glasnost may be the order of the day in the corridors of Stormont, where the DUP leader, Dr Paisley, has gone into partnership government with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.

Pope Benedict, in his recent book on Jesus Christ, said in a preface that readers were free to disagree with his interpretation of scriptural sources.

Yet, Mr Thompson's thundering righteousness knew no bounds. Such was Mr Thompson's certitude in the absolute word of God as literally presented in his version of the Bible promoted by the Evangelical Protestant Society, that his strictures of Roman Catholic belief were uncompromising.

Scandalous was the selling of rosary beads to tourists in the Anglican Cathedral of St Patrick's in Dublin.

Anathema was hurled upon the mild-mannered dean, Robert MacCarthy, for condoning superstitious practices for filthy lucre. The Mass was blasphemous. The Virgin Mary was a good woman, but not a goddess.

"It's a funny old world," Margaret Thatcher is reported to have remarked in tears when she was toppled as Britain's prime minister by her own Conservative party. Tragedy can often masquerade as humour.

While Mr Thompson lined-up a queue of indignant callers to the 'Joe Duffy Show', many of us laughed at the hilarious prospect of this new saviour's next outing with Podge and Rodge.

It is not so funny, indeed, not funny at all, that such traditional anti-Catholic intolerance should still be let loose so cavalierly on RTE radio. It is intolerant. It is venomous. It is an incitement to hate Catholics.

Joe Duffy should hang his head in shame. Of far greater importance than his audience ratings is the pressing necessity of everyone professing to be involved with a Christian denomination -- or of none -- to remove the sectarian mind-set from this island that was so central to the deaths of many Catholics and Protestants in the recent tribal warfare in the North euphemistically called 'the Troubles.'

What disturbed me most about Mr Thomson's outburst was that he is a civil servant attached to a DUP minister at Stormont, and that he wants the First Minister, Dr Paisley to return to the 17th century -- and hoist the 'No Pope Here' placards.

Ironically, on Monday, the day before the 'Messiah' Thomson Reformation blast, courtesy of RTE, little or no media attention was given to a thoughtful speech delivered in Drogheda by the British Ambassador to the Holy See.

Addressing the annual Greenhills church unity conference, Francis Campbell praised "the positive and unique role that religion played in bringing the conflict to an end", and he said that the Irish and British governments would not have ended terrorism in the North without the help of the Christian Churches.

Noting that one of the big topics of current debate worldwide is the perception that religion is associated with terrorism and extremism, Mr Campbell cited the peace settlement in the North as "a powerful practical illustration" of how religion could promote peace.

A Northerner, and the first Catholic to represent Britain at the Vatican, Mr Campbell suggested that the achievements of Irish churchmen in the peace process is a story that needs to be told. Sadly, to our cost, for every Fr Alex Reid and Rev Harold Good, there was a Rev Ian Paisley and a Rev Robert Bradford bellowing bigotry.

Now that Dr Paisley has seen the light of co-existence, neither Stormont nor Montrose should herald a new Messiah like Wallace Thomson, who would take us all back down a sectarian cul-de-sac that needs to be buried alongside the Berlin Wall.

The power-sharing government will only survive and flourish if it brings the curtain-down on the dark age of religious bigotry.
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