Christmas in Northern Ireland this year is giving cross-community and cross-border relations a new dimension in seasonal good news and good cheer. The little Roman Catholic Church at Lislea, in the picturesque south Armagh countryside near the Irish border, plans to hold an ecumenical carol service Dec. 19 to show the world another face of Northern Ireland.
Periodically the rural peace there is shattered by bomb blast and the crack of rifle fire in the battle between security forces and paramilitaries. These outbursts bring headlines that local people believe are not a true reflection on life in the area.
Lawrance Evans, a university law student, is the main organizer of the ecumenical service. He says ''We have had readings and carols at Lislea for several years. This year we thought it would be appropriate to include people from both communities. The media are quick to report a violent incident in the area but we want to show the other side of the picture. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions co-exist here in a neighborly spirit, but this does not always make headlines.''
Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, leader of Northern Ireland's Roman Catholics, will take part in the service, together with parish priest the Rev. Thomas Woolsey, and a local Protestant clergyman, Canon David Clerk, the Church of Ireland rector of Ballymascanlon. He was formerly dean of Cashel in the Irish Republic, and his parish now straddles the border. He points out that a local group, the Slieve Gullion Choir which is mainly composed of Catholics, also visits his church.
''It works both ways,'' he says. ''The situation in this area is not as bad as it is made out to be.''
The service in Lislea is trilingual, and features the Irish language, English , and Latin. Special music is being provided by Corblinne, a local choir which has won all-Ireland competitions in liturgical music. The choir is named after St. Monnina who brought Christianity to the area in the 5th century.
Civic leaders from the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities are expected to attend the service. Louise McAleer, one of the organizers, says: ''We are aware of the bad news and of the violence that occurs from time to time, but we want to illustrate the friendship that exists and we are doing this with verve and gusto. It is important to let others know about the good news as well.''
Similar joint functions have been taking place in Northern Ireland in previous years, and they will be repeated this Christmas.
In Belfast the joint carol service in St. Anne's Anglican Cathedral is being attended by the four Irish church leaders and by some 1,000 Protestant and Roman Catholic children. There will also be 34 people from Wexford, in the Irish Republic taking part on Dec. 15. These were the families that hosted children from Belfast during the summer holidays.
Winnie Jordan, of the East Belfast Community Council says, ''There is a lot of crossing the divides and good work is going on, but it is not always publicized. Some people are doing the kind of things that might be harmed by too much publicity. We just keep on going, regardless.''
Meanwhile, there is another special Christmas boost to ''hands across the border.'' The Irish Republic's customs men have staged two day-long strikes to protest against working conditions.
As a result thousands of shoppers from the Republic have crossed to the North to take advantage of cheaper prices and to swell northern coffers to the tune of (STR)200,000 ($240,000).