Gerry Adams to talk forgiveness with relative of victim of IRA in Jesus documentary

Channel 4 is braced for criticism over its decision to send the Sinn Fein president on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Gerry Adams is to defend his part in Northern Ireland's violent past when he follows the footsteps of Jesus through the Holy Land in a Channel 4 documentary. "Sometimes I was in tune with the Jesus message and sometimes not," says the president of Sinn Féin, as he presents a personal history of Christ in a controversial programme filmed in Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

The 61-year-old Belfast-born Catholic and political activist, who has always denied having been a member of the Provisional IRA, calls for people to follow the moral example of Jesus and of those families of IRA victims who have forgiven their killers.

"I am not a pacifist and I don't believe that non-violent protest would have got justice in Ireland, but I do know that after decades of war, we all have plenty to forgive and to be forgiven for," he says. "I don't for one second step back from my responsibility as a leader of a struggle that has caused both hurt and damage to other human beings."

Channel 4's decision to make the documentary has been attacked by Victor Barker, who lost his 12-year-old son, James, in the 1998 Omagh bombing. "It's a big mistake and completely misguided," said Barker. "It is offering Adams a platform for doing what he does so well, of coming across on camera as a genuine, peaceful person who wants to promote peace and love."

The documentary, commissioned as part of a series, The Bible: A History, brings Adams face to face for the first time with Alan McBride, who lost both his wife and his father-in-law in the Shankill Road bombing of 1993. The two discuss forgiveness and the painful aftermath of a campaign of violence that killed more than 3,000 people. "I don't think it was worth one of those lives," McBride tells Adams. "I think we need to be more like Jesus and yet less religious, if that is not a contradiction."

Adams was a pallbearer at the funeral of Thomas Begley, the 22-year-old bomber killed in the Shankill blast. Adams says the bombing was "a stupid operation" for which blame should be shared. He also praises Alan McBride for his conciliatory attitude. "Those who can find it in themselves to do what you are, I think, are probably more true to what is the Jesus message than others, including myself," he says.

Ralph Lee, Channel 4's head of specialist factual programmes, said he expected criticism when he commissioned the documentary from Pioneer Productions: "It is a natural reaction to the potency of getting Adams to tell this story."

The series on the Bible, he said, is aimed at making its lessons relevant to life today. "They are supposed to be contemporary, personal views. It was a challenge Gerry was willing to take."

Lee said he "thought hard" about the fact that many would disagree with his decision. "Hopefully the encounter with McBride goes some way to address that," he said. "Channel 4 takes on difficult things as part of our lifeblood."

Adams, who attended mass every day during his 1973 internment in the Maze prison, known colloquially as Long Kesh, says he is a man who is "perfectly at peace".

"My service to my country and to the peace process is to bring other people with me," he argues. "I believe I have made mistakes and done things wrong. Not for a second do I stand over everything I ever did, or said, and think every­thing was always right."

Adams draws a distinction between his politics and his personal faith, but admits one informed the other. Asked by documentary-maker Dan Reed if it was fair to pick and choose between the teachings of Christ, Adams says: "You might not be right to do it, but you do it. We are not perfect and we do our best. If there is no one out there, pushing for a peaceful and democratic resolution, then, as night follows day, you will get people who resort to arms."

After a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Adams is shown a first-century tomb, of the sort Jesus's body would have been left in. Warned it will be cramped and dark inside, Adams quips: "Well, Sinn Féin used to be an underground movement." Sliding headfirst into the tomb, he compares it to one of the tunnels dug at Long Kesh.

In the programme Adams will explain that he cannot forgive those in power who "exploited" sectarian differences. This "sense of outrage", Adams says, means he still views the culprits "much like those who had to take a conscious decision to construct the cross".

Much of the documentary explores the layers of history behind the gospels and the political strategies involved in telling the story of Christ's life. Bethlehem, Adams learns, may have been picked out as a birthplace for Jesus simply because it was the City of David, while Barabas, the prisoner released by Pontius Pilate, was probably an insurrectionist or modern-day "terrorist". "From someone else's viewpoint he might well have been a freedom fighter," comments Adams.

The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount emerge as the cornerstone of what Adams regards as "the Jesus message" of mercy and forgiveness. The politician says he does not ask to be forgiven by former enemies, but would like to be a friend.

"The one thing I have always liked about Jesus is his lack of condemnation and his lack of denunciation: the way he mixed with all the wrong people," Adams says. "And the way that, although he sets out rules for life, he knows we are imperfect and we are not going to do it. So he gives us another chance, and another chance and another chance."

The Bible: A History – Jesus is on C4 on Sunday 21 February at 6.55pm


Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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