Will Protestants Welcome Pope Francis To Northern Ireland?

Pope Francis is to visit Ireland in 2018 and may cross the border into the North.Reuters

The Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland (EANI) has welcomed news that Pope Francis might visit the province in 2018.

Francis is set to visit the Republic of Ireland but speculation that he might cross the border into the North has mounted in recent days.

EANI's public policy officer David Smyth said he wanted to extend a "warm and sincere welcome to the Pope" and hoped that such a welcome would be shown "by the whole community".

"Sometimes we can be concerned that by showing warmth or generosity that that can be misunderstood as endorsing everything someone stands for," he said.

"Maybe we need to be bolder in our welcome."

However, other Protestants are less enamoured with the prospect. Free Presbyterian ministers have said they will protest if the Pope visits the North. Rev Ian Brown, pastor of the Martyr's Memorial Church founded by the late Dr Ian Paisley, told the News Letter that the current Pope was "no closer to proclaiming the one true biblical Gospel – that salvation is by faith alone through Christ alone" – than the Catholic church of Martin Luther's day and "the only proper response to his high publicity visit is a solid protest".

Another Free Presbyterian minister, Rev David McIlveen, said he believed he had a duty to hold a "peaceful protest" as he believed the Pope's office as "Vicar of Christ on earth" usurps the place of Christ.

McIlveen accompanied Ian Paisley to Strasbourg in 1988 when he was ejected from the European Parliament for protesting the appearance of Pope John Paul II there, calling him the "anti-Christ".

Paisley's successor as First Minister, Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, said she would be willing to meet the Pope if he travels to Northern Ireland. But she said in a statement the invitation must come from the British Foreign Office.

Pope Francis has visited several trouble spots during his papacy, sometimes at the risk of his life, including the Central African Republic where Christians and Muslims were involved in intercommunal violence. A visit to Northern Ireland would have been unthinkable a few years ago during the Troubles which saw Protestant and Catholic communities pitted against each other, but the Church – and British and Irish diplomats – might calculate that relations have warmed sufficiently to make a trip feasible.

Many conservative Protestants, however, have remained immune to the 'Pope Francis effect', having been taught that the papacy – embodied by the incumbent Pope – is the "anti-Christ", identified with the dragon of Revelation 13 or the "great prostitute" of Revelation 17.

In the Republic, Francis will have to face disillusionment with the Church following revelations of widespread abuse carried out in its institutions. 

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