02 February 2006

Priest tells of talks bid to wipe out graffiti

Belfast Telegraph

by Alf McCreary: Religion Correspondent
02 February 2006

A Catholic priest has revealed how his direct talks with loyalists has led to a promise to remove offensive graffiti from outside his church at Harryville in Ballymena.

Fr Paul Symonds told a large congregation in St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast how he had decided not to retaliate with condemnatory language last summer when loyalists had daubed the Catholic church with paint and graffiti.

Speaking at the Day of Reflection in the cathedral at the weekend, he said: "I felt that if people do that kind of thing, they must be feeling some pain and that I needed to listen to them and to hear about that pain."

Speaking later to the Belfast Telegraph, he said that he had been "overwhelmed" when local Presbyterians and members of other churches helped to clean up the mess after two separate attacks.

He also sent out feelers that he wanted to talk directly to loyalists who had perpetrated the attacks. He said: "It took some time, and at the start I did not really expect a response.

"However, I eventually was invited to meet a loyalists group and I was treated with respect, which I appreciated. I listened carefully to what they had to say. We talked to each other as human beings, and not as people with labels, and things developed from that."

He added: "They undertook to remove a paramilitary mural which overlooks our church and to replace it with a cultural picture which they believe will not be offensive to Catholics.

"They also promised to keep me informed about their plans. The group also undertook to remove red, white and blue painting from kerbstones outside the church, and understand that they may need to use a sandblaster."

Fr Symonds accepted an invitation earlier this month to attend the opening of the local advice centre of the Ulster Political Research Group, the political wing of the UDA.

He said: "I was again very well treated and I would be hopeful of a peaceful outcome this summer. I am not complacent, and there is a need for continued dialogue and for great sensitivity."

Fr Symonds had also kept open his contacts with other church leaders in the area, including the Presbyterian Moderator Dr Harry Uprichard, from Ahoghill.

He said: "Dr Uprichard and I have different attitudes to such matters as shared worship, but I respect his views. We have a warm relationship, and I hope that when he ends his busy year of office we will have time to meet."

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