Belfast's quiet effort to bridge the religious divide

On Christmas Day a dozen or so peace workers will begin a three-day fast outside Belfast's City Hall. They hope to draw attention to the suffering not only in Ulster, but also throughout the world. In doing so they will be showing a side of Northern Ireland that is not often in the news.

The people of Ulster are trapped by violence and fear. The political deadlock continues. Terrorists still grab headlines with their atrocities.

Despite this, many Protestants and Roman Catholics are working quietly together to improve understanding and to sow the seeds of peace.

Typical of these is Paul Smyth, a student from Belfast who plans to take part in the fast. ''We will be hungry through our own choice,'' he says. ''Two-thirds of the world's people are starving, but they have no choice at all.''

The Belfast group will also be protesting violence such as the car bomb attack on Harrods in London last Saturday. The illegal Irish Republican Army has taken responsibility for that bombing, which killed five people and injured 91.

Groups in Graz, Austria, and Konigswinter, West Germany, will be supporting the Belfast protest. Mr. Smyth explains: ''The groups in Europe will be as concerned about nuclear weapons as we are about violence at home. This solidarity with Europe is important to us.''

The Belfast fast is just one example of the year-round cooperation between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Ulster. Paul Smyth is a volunteer with the Peace People, an organization formed in the mid-1970s by Nobel Peace Prize winners Mairead Corrigan (now Mairead Maguire) and Betty Williams (now Betty Perkins).

The Peace People continue to foster better relations across the religious divides. They work in schools, in discussion groups, in summer camps, and in other ways.

Mr. Smyth explains his experience, ''I spent two years at school in England, and this helped me to look at Ulster in perspective. It has its own identity and its unique humor. I hope to stay here and to work for the good of all the community.''

Such youthful optimism is evident elsewhere. Shortly before Christmas 1,000 Protestant and Roman Catholic children took part in a joint carol service at Belfast cathedral. They were joined by the leaders of the four main churches and by hundreds of other adults. Winnie Jordan, a member of East Belfast Community Council, helped organize the service.

For 14 years the council has also organized an interdenominational summer festival. ''Despite all the bad news,'' Mrs. Jordan says, ''community workers are determined that they will not be deterred. The headlines show political deadlock and violence, but we are finding a great deal of sanity at the grass roots. Therein lies the hope for the future.''

The Corrymeela Community, a church-based organization, was working with Protestants and Roman Catholics before the current troubles began in 1968. It has won national and international recognition for its support of organizations that bridge the religious and social divides.

But for Corrymeela and the other mainstream peace movements, the daily grind of bridge-building is vital.

''It is important that every now and then we raise our profile to speak a word of hope and to give fresh vision in this society. It is often the smaller, low-key events which are really significant in changing attitudes, supporting initiatives, or nourishing new vision,'' says the Rev. John Morrow, the Corrymeela leader.

On a political and governmental level the search goes on for some way to break the deadlock and to banish terrorism to the undergrowth of Irish history. Yet in a historical context, future generations may conclude that today's painstaking work of Ulster's largely unheralded peacemakers has been the most significant development of all.

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