Ulster group celebrates 21-year commitment to reconciliation

A Christian group in Northern Ireland dedicated to building bridges of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants is celebrating its 21st birthday. While violent incidents continue throughout the province - such as last week's mortar attack, allegedly by Catholic extremists, in Newry - this interdenominational group persists in bringing residents from the troubled communities together.

The Corrymeela Community was formed in 1965 largely by students from Queen's University in Belfast and their friends. It has since won wide support from local churches and groups in other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe. Based in Belfast, Corrymeela hosts regular conferences for people from widely differing backgrounds at an attractive site in Ballycastle, on the coast some 60 miles northeast of Belfast. There, Roman Catholic and Protestant politicians, community leaders, and families meet to share their points of view.

Rev. Ray Davey, one of the founders, says: ``We do not put forward a solution to the problems. That is the task of the politicians. Our role is to be a witness to the kind of life that Ulster people can and ought to live.''

While Corrymeela cannot change the situation in the areas to which these people must return, it hopes to start a change in attitudes, which could lead to a lessening of tensions in flashpoint areas.

For example, Protestant and Catholic groups from troubled west Belfast met recently during a ``family week'' at Corrymeela. Violence had been so bad in the area at the time that residents had asked the government to erect a barrier between the two communities. But through counseling by a church group, the leaders from each community had come to accept that a change in attitudes would be more effective than building a wall to separate them. Thus they were spending a week at Corrymeela to foster a new relationship.

The strength of Corrymeela is that it does not merely preach about reconciliation. When troubles erupt, the community opens its doors to those in need. The Belfast office was opened when it became clear there was a need for follow-up work near the flashpoint areas of the city.

The work of Corrymeela is well-known internationally. World figures like Nobel peace prize winner Mother Teresa and South African activist Alan Boesak have made contributions to its summer meetings. The community includes 140 members from churches that pledge financial and active support. Then there are 2,000 ``friends'' who help in other ways, including young people involved in summer camps. Dr. Davey says,``We do not point to specific achievements, like someone assessing a balance sheet. But we know from first-hand experience that many of the young people who have supported us have turned their backs on the paramilitaries and have opted for the alternatives we offer.''

The very fact that Corrymeela has survived the troubles and that it is expanding is an achievement in itself. Dr. Davey says,``When we opened in 1965 we said that Corrymeela was to be `God's question mark.' It is still precisely that, a question mark to the folly of the present, and a pointer to a better way for all the people of Ulster. In our opinion, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.''

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