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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
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

Semi Senior Accountant - Music

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful, Central London bas...

Sales Director, Media Sponsorship

£60000 - £65000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A globally successful media and ...

Head of Affiliate Sales for Emerging Markets

competitive + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you looking for your next role ...

Brand Engagement Manager - TV

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is your chance to join a gl...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits