Sectarianism 'caused by poverty' says archbishop

ONE of Scotland’s leading Catholics has said poverty rather than religious belief is largely to blame for the curse of sectarianism.

Mario Conti, the Archbishop of Glasgow, said sectarian "bullies" and "fanatics" were excluded from society and focused their anger on people they saw as different.

But Conti’s comments - which he makes in his first pastoral letter to Glasgow’s 106 Catholic congregations today - have been condemned by campaigners against sectarianism as "simplistic".

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Conti’s pastoral letter also contains a commitment to defend separate state-funded Catholic schools from criticism that they perpetuate sectarianism.

Instead, said Conti, bigotry was caused by a combination of physical deprivation and "cultural and spiritual poverty", not by differences between the Catholic church and Protestant denominations.

He insisted that it was this "poverty" which acted as "the breeding ground of the violence, loutishness and addiction which blights areas of our city".

The archbishop wrote: "Over the last year I have been asked time and time again about the cancer of sectarianism. It is clearly related to this poverty. The bullies and fanatics who engage in sectarian behaviour must be left in no doubt that their activities have no justification in the name of true religion."

Conti argued that the government had to reach out to a growing number of young people who had "no respect for authority, for other people, nor often for themselves".

Conti’s views were, however, challenged by Donald Gorrie, the Liberal Democrat MSP and anti-sectarianism campaigner.

Gorrie said: "The issue is a complicated cocktail of historical antagonism, fuelled by economic anger from one sector who feared losing jobs to the new Irish immigrants, differing forms of nationalism, football loyalties and religious differences."

He said it was "simplistic" to say religion did not play a role in sectarianism, arguing that it was a badge by which communities identified themselves and others.

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Gorrie added: "This cocktail permeates through all classes and is not confined to people who are poor. The people who go to the directors boxes at Old Firm games and get swept away by the atmosphere are not poor."

Ivan Middleton, secretary of the Humanist Society of Scotland, also challenged Conti’s view.

"I think you will find that there are wealthy people in Glasgow, who have gone through the separate schooling system, who hold sectarian views," he said.

" There are quite a few people who go along to both Ibrox and Parkhead in expensive cars, who are at least condoning the sectarian chanting that goes on at football matches by their presence."

However, Professor Steve Bruce, a sociologist at Aberdeen University and one of Scotland’s leading authorities on sectarianism, suggested Conti’s diagnosis was close to the mark.

Bruce said: "I think sectarianism is largely about hooliganism, and the ghastly behaviour that is regarded as acceptable among a certain kind of young working class male, who thinks that a sensible thing to do is to get absolutely tanked up, take lots of drugs, carry a sharp weapon and if for any reason you disagree with anybody about anything, or dislike the colour of their face or their hair you attack them."

Peter Kearney, a spokesman for the Catholic Church of Scotland, said: "The archbishop toured his archdiocese and is to some extent responding to the localised problems of Glasgow. But an analysis of the causes of sectarianism that homes in on socio-economic factors is long overdue."

Responding to criticism of Conti’s views, Ronnie Convery, a spokesman for the archbishop, said: "It is too simplistic to say that sectarianism is purely a by-product of religious differences. Material, educational and cultural poverty all contribute."

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The Scottish Executive has made tackling sectarianism a priority and will introduce law changes to increase the penalty for crimes with a sectarian motivation.

The turbulent priest

ARCHBISHOP Mario Conti was selected by the Pope to replace the late Cardinal Thomas Winning, right, as the spiritual leader of Glasgow’s 220,000 Catholics last year.

The 68-year-old had previously been Bishop of Aberdeen and was seen as someone very much in the shadow cast by Cardinal Winning.

Winning’s death of a heart attack in June 2001 robbed the church of a populist and popular leader who revelled in speaking out on issues of morality, such as the debate over the Scottish Executive’s repeal of Section 28, which barred local authorities from promoting homosexuality as a valid lifestyle choice.

Conti - more intellectual but less comfortable with soundbites than his predecessor - spent the first few months of his tenure quietly getting to know the priests and people of his new archdiocese.

But he has now decided to take a more aggressive political role. This was indicated by his decision last month to compare calls for the amalgamation or abolition of Catholic schools to demands for the "repatriation of the Irish".