|Ian Paisley has led the Free Presbyterians since 1951.|
Paisley to leave helm of Northern Ireland church
Hard-liners angry at cooperation with Sinn Fein
DUBLIN - The Rev. Ian Paisley said yesterday that he is stepping down as leader of the hard-line Protestant church he founded 56 years ago, a decision his opponents say was inevitable after he angered many by cooperating with Sinn Fein to form a Northern Ireland government.
The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster said Paisley would step down rather than face possible ouster following the church's annual meeting, which began Friday.
Paisley, 81, has been reelected for decades unopposed to the position of Free Presbyterian moderator but was expected to face a challenger when his current term expires in January. He will serve in the post through December, then vacate it.
The rising opposition to Paisley was demonstrated Friday when a majority of Free Presbyterian elders called for a separation of church and state - a barbed reference to Paisley's status as leader of Northern Ireland's fledgling Catholic-Protestant government.
In a brief statement, Paisley's office said he made the decision without outside pressure and was "very happy" to step down.
Paisley also leads the Democratic Unionists, the political party he founded in 1971 on a platform of thwarting compromise with Catholics and Irish nationalists. 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 his party into the most popular in Northern Ireland.
But he stunned the territory in March by opening talks with Sinn Fein and quickly announcing a deal to forge a coalition with politicians he had long denounced as the devil's disciples.
The deal unsettled many within his church base, who valued his Old Testament approach to politics. A prominent Free Presbyterian preacher, Ivan Foster, in November called on Paisley to quit as church leader if he cooperated with Sinn Fein.
In a letter to Paisley, Foster urged him to reject Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, "who is guilty of the blood-shedding of so many of our fellow countrymen."
Since May, however, Paisley has served in the Cabinet alongside McGuinness, a former IRA commander. McGuinness said they were getting along fine - but still hadn't shaken hands.
Paisley is expected to continue to preach each Sunday from the Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast, his ecclesiastical base in Northern Ireland for decades. It was there that Paisley first galvanized opposition to Catholic civil rights demonstrators demanding better rights in housing, jobs, and voting power in the 1960s.