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Audio: DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomes prospect of visit by Pope Francis

Pope Francis is set to visit Dublin next August, but it remains unclear if he will travel north. Picture by AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

A SENIOR DUP MP has welcomed the prospect of a visit by Pope Francis to Northern Ireland, saying that he is "looking forward" to what the pontiff "has to say...on moral issues."

Pope Francis is set to visit Dublin next August for the World Meeting of Families, and is expected to attend an event in the north. Pope Saint John Paul II did not travel across the border during the last papal visit to Ireland in 1979.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP and DUP parliamentary chief whip, told The Irish Catholic: "When we look at the moral issues of today, I’m looking forward to what Pope Francis has to say about those because I think that the debate has become very secular.

"It saddens me at times that the Church leaders do not speak out enough and with the same unequivocal approach to those moral issues.

Jeffrey Donaldson speaks to the editor of The Irish Catholic Michael Kelly

"If Pope Francis decides to visit Northern Ireland as part of his visit to the island, I don’t think there will be a negative reaction from the Protestant community.

"There is a recognition that Pope Francis is the head of the Catholic Church and that a very substantial portion of our population adheres to the Catholic Church," added the DUP MP.

Last November, a spokesperson for the then First Minister Arlene Foster said she would meet the Pope in his capacity as "head of state" if he came north.

However, in December 2016 Ballymoney DUP councillor John Finlay called on all evangelical Protestants to "speak out clearly" against the planned trip.

"Despite all the pandering to the Pope by senior figures in the main Protestant denominations, the fact remains that many within the Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist churches are totally opposed to the Pope’s claims and teachings, and to any visit," he wrote in The News Letter.

"He claims to be Vicar of Christ on earth, but the Reformers and Puritans correctly identified him as an enemy of Christ and of the Gospel."

The late Ian Paisley, one of the founders of the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church, famously interrupted Pope Saint John Paul II at the European Parliament in 1988, calling him the "Anti-Christ".

Upon the death of Pope John XXII in 1963, Mr Paisley reacted to the news by remarking that "this Romish man of sin is now in hell".

Prior to the visit of Pope Benedict to Britain in 2010 - whom Mr Paisley said "should not be invited" - former Mid-Ulster MLA Ian McCrea was one of several DUP elected representatives who added their support to a Facebook page entitled 'No Pope Here.'

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