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
Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice