Navigating Northern Ireland’s Changing Religious Landscape: Grassroots Faith Leaders Lead the Way

by Joshua Brown
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In Belfast, Northern Ireland, teenagers from Catholic and Protestant groups gathered and lit candles to remember the victims of the Holocaust. They also heard a message warning them of how the same religious hate that caused the Holocaust is still present in Northern Ireland.

“Do you all know what prejudice is?”, asked Stephen Hughes, the leader of St. Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre. The teens seemed too young to remember “the Troubles,” which was a time in history where people hated each other just because they were Protestant or Catholic. It was three difficult decades that sadly resulted in thousands of deaths and hurt many families.

25 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was signed which solved much violence in Northern Ireland. But this agreement did stir up some occasional fights and people of different faiths are still separated from one another in many ways. Those who work on helping build bridges between Catholic and Protestants still have a lot to do.

On a January evening, two youth groups, the Catholic St. Peter’s Immaculata and the Protestant Townsend Street Social Outreach Centre, held an event to remember the Holocaust. Their goal was to bridge their communities and create relationships.

The event was remembering a huge genocide which was more brutal than the Northern Ireland conflict, and the memorial gave us an important reminder, Mr. Hughes said.

He then reminded us all that our arguments and jokes can travel far too quickly into something dangerous.

He urged us teens to work together for peace. He told us thankfully we don’t know such violence – but we are the future!

The young people then went to McDonald’s and got some Big Macs and fries. Ruth Petticrew, the director of the Townsend Street organization has been helping with this—even though it was really dangerous when she started because a bomb may have gone off anytime you walked by a building! She believes that religion can help make everything better. After they all ate together, they got back on the bus to go home to their neighborhoods.

Petticrew said that instead of preachers talking about religious beliefs, churches should demonstrate how love works in real life. It needs to honest and authentic love rather than lectures.

In Northern Ireland, lots of things are changing as the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is coming up.

Northern Ireland was set up about a hundred years ago as a special six-county area where there were more Protestants than Catholics. This stayed like this despite the rest of Catholic Ireland leaving the UK. But now, census results show that things have changed and there are now more Catholics living in Northern Ireland than Protestants.

In Northern Ireland, 42% of people are Catholic, 37% are Protestant, and 17% don’t belong to any religion. 10 years ago, only 10% said they had no religion.

In Northern Ireland, religious leaders have noticed that even people who claim to be Christian are going to church less. This is similar to what’s happening in the Republic of Ireland due to bad behaviour from people in the Catholic Church. If a survey ever shows that it is likely, the Good Friday Agreement says that people can vote on whether or not they want Ireland to become one country.

If a vote was held right now, almost half the people in Northern Ireland (50%) would choose to stay in Britain instead of joining Ireland. This was according to an Irish Times survey and an academic research project called Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South.

Meanwhile, only 55% of Catholics living in Northern Ireland would choose to join with Ireland. Another fifth are not sure what they’d go for, while the last fifth wants to stay in Britain.

Lots of people who live in Northern Ireland don’t feel like they want to be part of either the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland. They might not pick a side and aren’t sure what to do. Boyd Sleator, who works with a group called Northern Ireland Humanists, suggested that people should think about governing themselves instead.

Recently, Northern Ireland achieved something special – they won the right to have non-religious weddings with a humanist celebrant leading them.

This victory is considered very important because it helps people focus on other important things in Northern Ireland like how to solve their political issues and their dependence on money from the British government while also keeping educated professionals in their area.

“People talk about how there are a lot of issues between Catholics and Protestants. But actually it’s not only about religion, but also related to land, money, power and laws. That’s why some people even choose to leave the country because the government fails to fix all these problems.”

Jonny Clark, who works with Corrymeela on peace-building projects, said that conflict usually happens in poorer parts of society.

Clark said that religion used to play a big part of the conflict in our region, especially during the Troubles. But now, fewer and fewer people go to church, so these people are not causing any trouble on the weekends. Even though less people have faith nowadays, there are still some faith-based groups working hard for peace on a local level.

The Building Bridges Community Boxing Club is doing a great job! It’s located in an old Presbyterian church, which has closed down, and it was then taken over by the 174 Trust. This trust re-used the building to create a boxing gym.

This gym is in between two different neighborhoods. It’s on the other side of a wall that was built to keep people from the two neighborhoods apart. One neighborhood is mostly made up of Protestants and the other by Catholics.

The great thing about this gym is that it stays open all night even after they shut the gates to the wall since it sits right in between both neighborhoods. That way people from both neighborhoods have access to it.

The walls inside the boxing gym are filled with posters of famous boxers, both current and past, as well as inspirational phrases such as “BELIEVE” and “ACHIEVE”. Boxing is a sport that brings out fans from all different kinds of backgrounds and communities according to Rev. Bill Shaw, the CEO of the 174 Trust which works closely with the boxing club.

A Protestant boxer had a lot of success in the ring, and his Catholic friends from the gym showed their support by coming out to cheer him on. When one of those Catholics had a fight of their own, the Protestant boxer was even there helping them in their corner.

Shaw said that if you don’t know and have no contact with different people, it’s easy to think negatively about them. But Shaw learnt differently because he had his first Catholic friend at age 17. This was a friend he shared common interests in football, music, and girls with.

In the 1990s, Mr. Shaw was a minister at a church in Portadown, a town that had a lot of fighting going on. When he met someone from his church who had been in fights claiming to be defending their faith, he felt really differently and started working on stopping the fighting instead.

Right after the “Good Friday Agreement” was made in 1998, Mr. Shaw began leading an organization called The 174 Trust which is all about stopping conflict and creating peace.

The Duncairn is a community center located in a former church down the street from a boxing gym. It has stained-glass windows, arches and hosts concerts, exhibitions, an Irish-language preschool, a café and support groups.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, religious leaders from Catholic and Protestant backgrounds went to the Duncairn where they prayed for an end of prejudice and hatred. After their prayers were said, everyone shared a quiet moment together with brief “amens.” Doing this is seen as a way to reconcile instead of trying to get other people to join a particular faith. As one leader named Shaw stated: “Our motivation comes from our faith but that’s not what we are here to push on others.”

On a cold winter night, many people from different churches and neighbourhoods got together in a Methodist church to pray, listen to a Catholic speaker and sing Psalms with traditional Irish music like the fiddle and tin whistle. This was part of an annual event called 4 Corners Festival that works at connecting the city’s separated religions.

Rev. Martin Magill, a Catholic priest and festival organiser, said that the legacy from past conflicts has left us with fear so it is very important to provide safe places. He further said that fewer numbers of religious attendance might make peacebuilding easier as people from different denominations realize they don’t have enough resources on their own and therefore it makes more sense to share those limited resources.

The Associated Press gets help with its religion stories from The Conversation US. This money comes from Lilly Endowment Inc and the Associated Press is responsible for all of it.

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