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Religious protests are planned in opposition to Northern Ireland’s first ever home Sunday fixture against Finland tomorrow.
The national side have played overseas on a Sunday in the past, most recently in their opening Euro 2016 qualifier in Hungary, but this weekend will break new ground in Belfast.
The Irish Football Association (IFA) has been careful in the past not to arrange Sunday fixtures, and once had an article of association enshrining such a policy, but was powerless to act once Uefa introduced its “week of football” blueprint for the current qualifying campaign.
But that cuts no ice with critics, some of whom have called on the IFA to boycott the fixture.
The Free Presbyterian Church is planning to hold a service at its Tyndale Memorial church, located just a few hundred yards from Windsor Park, 75 minutes before the 5pm kick-off.
The Evangelical Protestant Society, meanwhile, has issued a statement expressing its dismay at events.
“This will be the first time an international football match has been held in Belfast on a Sunday, and it marks another watershed moment in modern Ulster’s increasing rejection of the Lord’s Day,” it read.
“Far too many sporting and social events are now organised on Sundays with, it seems, scant regard for the rights of evangelicals who, because of their faith, are unable to be involved. Many evangelical Protestants are ardent fans of the national team and would dearly love to be present at the match.
“We fully accept that we are out of step with the majority of public opinion on this matter and we suspect that many who claim to be Protestants will be present at Windsor Park on Sunday.”
Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill, speaking earlier this week to the Belfast Telegraph, said: “We appreciate and understand people’s religious beliefs — but the game must be played on Sunday, as that date was decreed when the fixture was made by Uefa.
“We hope for a victory on the night and for the usual wonderful support from all Northern Ireland fans.”
There was a conciliatory message from Gary McAllister, chair of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters’ Clubs.
McAllister said: “We understand there will be a protest near the stadium and that is their right. I imagine it will be very peaceful and they are fully entitled to do that.
“But this is not an IFA decision and I don’t think suggestions that the game is forfeited are realistic at all.
“It is clearly a matter of choice. Some fans have made the decision not to attend for sincerely held beliefs and no doubt they are passionate as any other fans.
“I fully respect those who oppose it but it must be, and it will be, played.”
by Our Sports Desk
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