Northern Ireland

Presbyterian Moderator refuses to shake the Pope's hand

Rev Norman Hamilton
Image caption Dr Norman Hamilton denied he was snubbing the Pope

The leader of the largest Protestant church in Northern Ireland has refused to shake the Pope's hand.

The Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Norman Hamilton, plans to go to a service in Westminster on Friday, attended by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But Dr Hamilton said he turned down the opportunity to be presented to the Pope after the service because of "troubling issues" which needed to be addressed.

He insisted his decision was not a snub to Catholics or Pope Benedict XVI.

He said he had changed his plans in order to accept an invitation to attend Friday's ceremony because he wanted to show "proper respect to the Roman Catholic people of Ireland and their leader".

'Scandals'

However, the moderator said he had declined the opportunity to be presented to the Pope or to shake his hand after the service because there were a number of issues which needed "substantive discussion back in Ireland".

"There appear to be troubling differences between us on how we deal with the past," he said.

"Colleagues of mine are picking up pastoral issues within the Catholic Church, where Catholic families are coming to them asking for pastoral help, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances, because they do not want Catholic clergy to deal with them in light of the abuse scandals."

He added he hoped people would understand that he was in "difficult circumstances, where there were all sorts of conflicting pressures".

Dr Hamilton was elected as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in March.

The 63-year-old became a significant public figure as a result of his mediation work in the Holy Cross dispute in north Belfast in 2001.

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