Northern Ireland leader Paisley to step down from helm of his Protestant church after 56 years

DUBLIN, Ireland: The Rev. Ian Paisley, who has angered many of his Protestant faithful by forming a Northern Ireland government with a former IRA commander, is stepping down as leader of the hard-line church he founded 56 years ago.

The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster said Paisley would step down rather than face possible ouster following the church’s annual meeting, which ended early Saturday.

Paisley, 81, for decades has been re-elected unopposed to the post of Free Presbyterian moderator but was expected to face a challenger when his current term expires in January. The church elders said he would serve his current term, but the office would become vacant that month.

In a brief statement, Paisley’s office said he took the decision without outside pressure and was “very happy” to step down.

But the meeting demonstrated strong opposition to his continuing as moderator. A majority of Free Presbyterian elders called for separation of church and state — a barbed reference to Paisley’s leadership of Northern Ireland’s fledgling Catholic-Protestant government.

Paisley also leads the Democratic Unionists, the political party he founded in 1971 on a platform of thwarting compromise with Catholics and Irish nationalists. Until now he has promoted religion and politics in a style unique in modern Europe.

In recent years, his rejection of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace pact and his hostility to Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party, transformed the Democratic Unionists into a poll-topping party.

He stunned Northern Ireland in March by opening talks with Sinn Fein — and announcing within an hour, on live television, a deal to forge a coalition with politicians he had long denounced as the devil’s disciples.

Since May he has served in Cabinet alongside Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander. McGuinness said they were getting along fine — but still hadn’t shaken hands.

“He takes some pride still in telling people that he hasn’t done that,” McGuinness said this week on Irish national broadcasters RTE. “But we meet every day, sometimes twice a day, sometimes for up to three or four hours. And there hasn’t been an angry word between us.”

Paisley’s burying the hatchet with Sinn Fein has unsettled many within his church base, which valued his Old Testament approach to politics and his rejection of ecumenical cooperation with Catholics.

A prominent Free Presbyterian preacher, Ivan Foster, in November called on Paisley to quit as church leader if he cooperated with “monstrous and ungodly” Sinn Fein.

Foster wrote to Paisley calling on him to reject McGuinness, “one who is guilty of the blood-shedding of so many of our fellow countrymen.” A Paisley-McGuinness partnership would be “utterly heartbreaking and incompatible with your duties as moderator of our church,” he wrote.

Paisley is expected to continue to preach each Sunday from the Martyrs Memorial in southeast Belfast, his ecclesiastical base for decades.

He first used that pulpit to galvanize 1960s opposition to Catholic civil rights demonstrators demanding better rights in housing, jobs and voting power.

Throughout the IRA’s failed 1970-97 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force, many Protestant voters rejected Paisley’s anti-Catholic rhetoric as bigoted and unreasonable.

But votes for the Democratic Unionists surged after moderate Protestant politicians accepted the 1998 peace pact, which freed IRA prisoners and gave Sinn Fein a share of power without IRA disarmament. After the Democratic Unionists became the biggest party on a platform of never working with Sinn Fein until the IRA surrendered, the outlawed group renounced violence and disarmed.

Paisley’s evangelical church is nowhere near as popular. It has an estimated 10,000 members today, chiefly in Northern Ireland, a province of 1.7 million with more than 50 Protestant denominations. On a typical Sunday, the pews for his Martyrs Memorial sermons are only half full.

Paisley received a doctorate in divinity from Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a Bible college associated with extreme right-wing views.

He founded the Free Presbyterians in 1951 during a conflict with Presbyterian leaders over whether he could lead an evangelical mission. His first political protest, in 1963, criticized Belfast council leaders for lowering the British flag to half mast when Pope John XXIII died.

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