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.

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