'Room for disagreement' as sides search for meeting of minds
Tuesday, 14 March 2017
SPEAKING at a conference in Rostrevor attended by Christian, Muslim and Jewish people as well as politicians, scholars and artists, Pastor James McConnell has stressed the importance of there being "room for disagreement".
Pastor McConnell was cleared last January of charges linked to a sermon that he made at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in Belfast in May 2014.
A Judge found that while he found the remarks about Islam "offensive", he did not find them "grossly" offensive under the law.
The conference, organised by musician and peacemaker Tommy Sands under the umbrella of 'The Music of Healing', was also attended by two men who defended Pastor McConnell during court preoceedings - Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini and Fr Paddy McCafferty.
Pastor McConnell also spoke of the deep bonds he has forged with both men.
“It was nice to see people brought together and it was lovely. I enjoyed the comments that were made.," he said.
“The highlights were meeting my friend Muhammad who stood for me in court and meeting Fr Paddy McCafferty who stood for me in court as well and they've become good friends of mine.
“We differ chasms in our theology but we're good friends - in fact Fr McCafferty has been a good friend of mine for 24 years and Muhammad has become real close - a lovely young muslim cleric. He's lovely and he's become a good friend, and even a friend of my family.
“I was invited down here by the organiser and I came down because of those two men who stood by me."
Asked if he felt that conferences such as that held in Rostrevor - it is hoped that at the conclusion a declaration can be presented to all Parliaments and Assemblies within these islands - can make a difference to wider political debate in the north of Ireland, Pastor McConnell said: "I think it's good, providing that it's balanced.
“I'm just frightened that we can be so polite that we're tiptoeing through the tulips, and that we're frightened to say things to one another.
“We need honesty. There's room for disagreement absolutely."
For his part Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini said that it was "an honour to participate.
“For me, it really comes out of a personal friendship," he insisted.
“All of it comes out of personal friendships, firstly with Tommy Sands, who's my musical hero.
“I knew him through his music and I never imagined I'd ever get to meet him let alone be working together on something. So that means most of all.
“And in terms of the outcome - I really hope very much that in this time of trial and tension that through this we might be able to foster an understanding that enables Northern Ireland to fulfil its mission before God.
“Which is, through its incredible experience of hardship, of religious conflict - to share that experience in bringing peace to this very, very broken world at the moment.
“I also came to defend Pastor McConnell's right to freedom of speech. It's important to me as an academic because I work in the field of religion in public life and particularly in instances where religion has gone wrong, and there have been abuses of religion such as for example violent extremism.
“Freedom of speech and religious freedom are the very fundamentals of a free and democratic society. The answer for me to perhaps unhelpful speech isn't trying to prosecute people but rather to have more speech and engage the conversation."
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