Football fans were greeted by the sight of around 100 Christian demonstrators on Sunday as they made their way to Northern Ireland’s European Championship game at Windsor Park.
The protestors were members of the Free Presbyterian Church, aggrieved at the decision to stage a home match on a Sunday for the first time, and a number bore placards reading: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”.
Rev David McLaughlin said the match not only clashed with this Biblical edict, but also with worship at Tyndale Memorial church, close to the stadium.
It was there the demonstrators gathered from around 4pm, one hour before kick-off.
Rev McLaughlin led the service, which began with what he dubbed the denomination’s “battle hymn” – I Am Not Afraid to Own My Lord.
Prayers followed, plus a reading of the 10 Commandments.
At least one protestor had come from as far away as Kesh in Co Fermanagh to attend.
Rev McLaughlin, from Carryduff congregation, said: “We felt the service of witness, as far as we were concerned, went very well. It wasn’t our intention to be confrontational with the fans, because our beef isn’t really with the fans.
“Many of our church people who are fans were disenfranchised today, and weren’t able to go.”
Instead, he reiterated that their “beef” was with those responsible for scheduling the fixture against Finland.
He also said the end of the match coincided with the venue’s 6.30pm service.
As for the fans passing by on the way into the Belfast stadium, he said: “There were a few fans displaying their displeasure and disquiet that we were there. I think some of them would have presumed we were in opposition to them. We’re not.”
However, he added: “They weren’t as raucous as I thought they could have been.”
Although some had raised their voices and clenched their fists, he said, they were generally well behaved.
Prominent church figure Rev David McIlveen had just returned from the USA yesterday afternoon and said he deeply regretted not being able to attend the protest.
Asked if there would be more protests in the future, he said: “I would expect so, yes.
“This is really an ongoing thing in an effort to maintain the sanctity of the Lord’s Day.”
The fixture was a qualifying match for the 2016 Euro finals, run by UEFA, the continent’s footballing authority. Northern Ireland beat Finland 2-1.
Jim Shaw, president of the Irish Football Association, had previously told the News Letter: “You can’t choose dates... In the old system all teams came together and chose what dates they would play, but this is the first competition where that is no longer the case.”