BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — ven in the best of circumstances, marriage is a leap of faith. But when Sean O'Hare wed Maureen Megaw in 1969, their union was no less than an act of bravery.
Sean is a Roman Catholic; Maureen, a Protestant.
In the 30 years since their wedding day - decades in which Northern Ireland's sectarian troubles have raged around them - their marriage has flourished despite their religious differences.
And recent statistics show that, little by little, more interfaith couples are following them down the aisle.
The news offers a ray of hope for two communities who live so close together, yet remain divided over rival British and Irish identities.
Figures produced in a University of Ulster report show that in 1989, only 6 percent of couples were of mixed denomination. The figures for 2000 show that 11 percent of couples are either in mixed marriages or consider themselves to be of "no religion" at all.
This figure may actually be higher, experts say, taking into account those couples who live together without marrying, to avoid family, church or community displeasure.
It is a small increase - but a significant one, bucking the general trend here toward increasing sectarian polarization in housing, employment, education, and nearly every other sphere.
One of the report's authors, Gillian Robinson, a senior lecturer in policy studies at the University of Ulster, says hostility to mixed marriages is easing.
"Sixteen percent in 1998 thought most people in Northern Ireland would 'mind a lot' if a close relative were to marry into a different religion," Robinson says. "Nine years previously, more than 33 percent of those interviewed thought people in general would mind a lot."
The Institute of Conflict Research found that the number of mixed marriages rose from 6 percent in 1989 to just over 10 percent in 1999.
The Institute's Professor Marie Smyth says that Protestants appear to have the greater fear of mixed marriages - perhaps because they feel under threat from an increasingly confident Catholic population.
Although the latest national census figures will not be available until 2003, the general perception here is that the Catholic population is rising because of its higher birth rate. Robinson says Protestants see themselves as a community in retreat.
One opponent to mixed marriages is the exclusively-Protestant, 200-year-old Orange Order, formed to defend the reformed faith against what it regards as Catholic blasphemy. Anyone joining the influential order, whose membership is estimated to be more than 50,000, has to swear that he was born a Protestant, of Protestant parents, is married to a Protestant, and will never attend any act of "popish worship." Members must also swear to "resist the ascendancy" of the Catholic church "and the extension of its power."
The upward trend in interfaith marriages is of great satisfaction to the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) which, with the four main Christian denominations, has just produced a poster and a pamphlet offering practical advice for mixed-denomination couples.
Nigel Spiers, NIMMA's chairman, says the main churches are showing a more relaxed attitude to members of their congregation "marrying out." But he adds, "Some people still have to leave Northern Ireland if they want to marry and settle down with someone of a different faith. There are still individual members of the clergy who are less than generous towards couples in mixed relationships."
Catholic rules regarding interfaith marriages have eased.
The church still requires the Catholic partner in a mixed marriage to promise that he or she will "do what I can within the unity of my partnership to see the children brought up in the Catholic faith." The key words here, though, says Canon Brendan Murray, the mixed marriage consultor for the Catholic diocese of Down and Connor, are "within the unity of my partnership."
"What this means is that the couple try to resolve any difficulties," he says. "But if it leads to tension, then the Catholic partner stops. It ensures the couple think seriously about their children's religious upbringing, rather than just leaving it to them to decide when they become adults, but recognizes the equal rights of the Protestant partner."
The hazards facing people who choose to marry someone from the "rival" religious denomination are well-documented.
In one notorious case, Kathleen Lundy, a Protestant, married a Catholic and converted to his religion. Although the couple's marriage ended, she raised her two sons as Catholics. Protestant loyalists repeatedly harassed her and her sons, and one night in November 1991, they poured gas through Ms. Lundy's letterbox before setting her house on fire. One son, Colin, died in the blaze along with his mother.
Most Protestants who marry Catholics tend to live in one of Northern Ireland's few mixed areas or in a Catholic area. One area favored by mixed couples is Ballynafeigh in south Belfast, where it's estimated that up to a third of the marriages are between Catholics and Protestants.
Kay and Brian Lambkin live here, attending different churches most Sundays. She teaches Sunday school, and, when they have time, they like to attend services at both churches.
The couple, who share a love of ancient Celtic languages and culture, met at Cambridge University in England.
"We had to get special permission from the Catholic church to marry, and I had to take pre-marriage instruction," says Kay, who is Protestant. "Luckily, our college chaplain made it very interesting, and I have no complaints.
"Brian's parents were very upset, though. They thought he was too young to marry and misguided about me."
Their children attended a non-denominational Irish-language primary school and then Northern lreland's first integrated religion school, Lagan College, where Brian is also a teacher.
Sean and Maureen O'Hare, who now live in Ballynafeigh but grew up on opposite sides of a peace line separating Protestants and Catholics in north Belfast, also had to overcome parental disapproval. Maureen's father had been particularly set against their marriage, but "he soon came round," she says.
The couple's five children have all been raised as Catholics and, although she never converted herself, Maureen says she loves the Catholic liturgy and helps set out flower displays in her local Catholic church. She counts a parish priest, who used to minister there, as one of her closest friends. He is fond of saying that Maureen is the "best Catholic" he knows.