Former Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers has spoken out against inviting Pope Francis to Belfast, branding the idea “a step too far”.
The UUP councillor made the remarks after it emerged the head of the Catholic church could be invited to the city, after SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy tabled a proposal for the monthly Belfast City Council meeting, due to take place next Tuesday.
In remarks which go against the grain of his party line, councillor Rodgers said: “I am a churchman myself. I am a Methodist and was brought up a congregationalist and I am not opposed to the Pope even though he is described by some people as the anti-Christ.
“There are those who are comparing it to the visit of her Majesty the Queen, but she is the head of state and he is the head of a church worldwide.
“To me there are other places in Northern Ireland that may be appropriate, but not Belfast.”
He said this was down to the amount of “hatred, sectarianism and bigotry”, noting that “we still have members of the loyal orders who have difficulty marching along arterial routes either out of or into the city”.
Mr Rodgers believes the border areas could be policed more easily, adding: “In many of the border regions there would be a large Roman Catholic majority and you wouldn’t have the same divisions there are in Belfast. There are two elections coming up and this is the SDLP playing politics.”
A spokesman for the UUP said: “We would be happy to see Pope Francis visit Belfast.
“As our capital, Belfast is a city for everyone. Pope Francis is the leader of one of the largest faiths in Northern Ireland and such a visit would clearly mean a great deal to those who follow him.
“Pluralism is at the very core of the UUP. We are a political party, not a religious organisation. We are, and always will be, vehement advocates of a society made up of all faiths and none.”
Councillor McCarthy said: “I have spoken to people of all faiths and none, and I only had a negative response from one individual – Jim Rodgers.”
See Morning View, page 60