American evangelist Franklin Graham held his first festival in Northern Ireland this past weekend, marking the largest evangelistic event in the area in nearly 50 years.
An estimated 32,783 people filled The Odyssey Arena in Belfast from April 4 to 6 to hear the Gospel message of hope as presented by Franklin Graham, who is president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The event was the largest of its kind since Franklin Graham's father, Billy Graham, held a similar event in the city in 1961.
"Not long ago, people thought Belfast was a hopeless city because of The Troubles," said Lord Mayor of Belfast, Jim Rodgers, according to BGEA. "Now is the time for the Celebration of Hope, and this visit by Franklin Graham is an opportunity to change lives."
Citizens of Belfast 10 years ago lived under a state of reoccurring violence and bombings due to a conflict between predominantly Protestant Unionists and predominantly Catholic Nationalists. The violence has popularly been known as The Troubles.
In general, Nationalists want Northern Ireland to be unified with the Republic of Ireland, while Unionists want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Even today, a high wall divides many Protestant and Catholic communities, and gates block off some neighborhoods at night.
"Many horrible things have been done in the name of religion," Franklin Graham said in Belfast. "Religion is not the answer. Religion cannot save you. I'm here to talk about the peace that comes from having a relationship with God's Son Jesus Christ."
The Belfast Celebration of Hope event united 386 churches who helped organize the festival in hopes that true peace is possible for all their countrymen. By the end of the weekend, 2,445 people responded to the invitation to follow Jesus Christ.
Besides Graham's message, the event also featured traditional Irish, hip-hop, and inspirational music by local and international artists. Special guests included 29th Chapter, Tree 63, Ian Hannah Band, Robin Mark, Keith & Kristyn Getty, the New Irish Orchestra, the Tommy Coomes Band, and guitarist Dennis Agajanian.
Local sports heroes Andrew Trimble from Irish Rugby and Northern Ireland International footballer Stuart Elliott shared personal stories about their faith and how athletic victories and fame could not fill a void in their lives.
On Saturday morning, 5,176 children filled the arena for KidzFest, a fun drama and a music presentation about God's love.
During his visit to Belfast, Graham was also invited to meet with Dr. Ian Paisley, The First Minister of Northern Ireland.
The Belfast event was the first Franklin Graham Festival to be streamed live on the internet on the BGEA website. It was also the first Graham Fest in 2008.
Upcoming events will be held in Knoxville, Tenn. (April 25-27); Villahermosa, Mexico (June 6-8); Timisoara, Romania (July 4-6); Charleston, S.C. (Sept. 19-21); and Taipei, Taiwan (Oct. 30-Nov. 2).
Since 1989, Franklin Graham has held an average of seven festivals each year as an evangelist for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.