John McCarthy: 'Labelling people as terrorists is utterly pointless'

It's 15 years since John McCarthy was released by his Hizbollah captors. Kim Sengupta discovers how he found 'a pretty ordinary life'

John McCarthy had always thought of himself as a Christian, but it was while he was being held hostage in Beirut that his faith deepened and helped him cope with the years of traumatic captivity and its aftermath.

It is now 15 years since McCarthy was released after spending 1,193 days as a prisoner of Hizbollah. He wrote of his experience in a bestselling book, Some Other Rainbow, with his then partner Jill Morrell, before re-establishing his journalistic career. McCarthy's work has reflected his interest in spiritual beliefs and a new three-part series he is presenting, Art of Faith, started on the SkyArts channel yesterday focusing on the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – through their architectural heritage. There will also be a series of accompanying lectures, presented by Lord St John of Fawsley, by the Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster and Professor Hans Kung, president of the Global Ethic Foundation.

" I do think that places of worship, of whatever religion, have this special atmosphere, one does feel a sense of solace, of peace. But they also reflect the different sets of values and beliefs of the various faiths and their different identities," says McCarthy. "We are going to have architects, scholars and ordinary worshippers all giving their points of view. The series is basically exploring a different way of approaching religion."

SkyArts says the programme, which uses high-definition footage, has had access to many places of worship hitherto unavailable to the media. Much of the filming had taken place in the Middle East, McCarthy's beat as a BBC journalist when he was taken hostage. He returned to Beirut four years ago for the first time since the kidnapping to make a TV programme about his attempt to understand Shia Islam, the creed of the gunmen who seized him in Lebanon and the new programme, he feels, is a continuation of the process.

"We did not discuss religion with our guards in Beirut, but they always made sure that we had Bibles and Brian Keenan and I discussed our beliefs. Later when Terry Waite came we used to have Bible study sessions. Christianity had always been part of my life in a loose way, but it was in Beirut that I really thought about it and my belief grew stronger."

McCarthy says the need to understand those who have taken up arms in the name of Islam is now greater than ever. "Just labelling them terrorists is pointless and self-defeating, the situation is much more complex. It's of course true that the Hizbollah have gunmen, but they also have a political role and provide social services and what happened to me, what is going on now, are all part of a wider political scene.

"In Beirut we had 17- 18-year-olds guarding us and given power over people some will behave badly. Look at what happened at Abu Ghraib, for example. The thing is you cannot judge a people, a religion, on just these particular incidents."

McCarthy does, however, still feel angry about how his mother, suffering from cancer, died while he was still a prisoner, without knowing what had happened to him. "All they had to do was to issue a photo of me showing that I was alive, it would have reassured my mother a bit and made her last days a little less sad," he says. "But they did not do that, and that was a kind of casual cruelty, a callousness that I cannot understand, nor bring myself to forgive."

Sheila McCarthy died in 1989 but her son, with no knowledge of what was going on in the world outside the cell where he was kept chained, did nor find out until a year later when two other hostages, Tom Sutherland and Terry Anderson, were brought in. They had heard about the death on the radio at their previous place of incarceration. McCarthy had a box of old photographs and letters from his mother, but it took him a long time after his return to be able to look at them. After the death of his father in 1994, John went to Ireland to trace his family history, and took the box with him. There, at a rented cottage in the haunting Dingle peninsula in Kerry, he read the letters and began, he says, to come terms with her death.

McCarthy's account of his Irish journey, A Ghost Upon Your Path, was critically acclaimed and sold well, as did a book he wrote with fellow captive Keenan, Between Extremes, about a trip they shared to Patagonia. It was while writing a third book, Island Race, with Sandy Toksvig that he met his future wife, Anna Ottewill, who was editing the work. They now live in Woodbridge in Suffolk, with their two-and-half-year-old daughter, Lydia. "We like that part of the country, we like the greenery, there's a church we go to, St Mary's," he says. "We lead a pretty ordinary life really, doing ordinary things."

McCarthy's life has been shaped by one overwhelming incident. Frank Gardner, who was shot in Saudi Arabia, is in a similar situation. Both the men have focused much of their work on the Middle East, the very place of their dreadful experience. "I talked to Frank about this recently, what happened to us did not, of course, turn us into experts. But I suppose it does give us a certain perspective. But I am just a journalist trying to cover issues which I think are very relevant in our time."

Art of Faith, produced in association with The Royal Fine Art Commission Trust, airs on Sky Arts, on Sundays at 7pm.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Online Customer Service Advisor

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A chance to work for an extreme...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine