An Easter passion play in the heart of troubled west Belfast has helped improve community relations and given local people new hope and self-confidence. Thousands have crowded into St. Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral in the Divis area - once notorious for clashes between militants and security forces - to watch the nightly performances, which ended earlier this week. Many were Protestants who, at one time, would not have entered the area.
The play recounted the Easter story with a mixture of styles ranging from pageantry to medieval mystery. Some 300 professionals and amateurs, including local residents, performed in what many felt was a stunning, three-hour, theatrical experience.
A huge wooden cross at the center of the drama was intended to symbolize not only the story of Christ Jesus but also the suffering and hope of a people living in a torn and divided city.
The cross made headlines long before the opening night of the play. It was carried more than 100 miles from Dublin by groups of young Protestants and Catholics as an act of reconciliation. Leaders from the main churches attended performances of the play in a significant gesture of church solidarity.
Political observers suggested that the play underlined the efforts the Catholic Church is making to retain the hearts and minds of people in west Belfast, which is part of the territory of the outlawed Irish Republican Army.
The Rev. Colm Campbell, youth officer for the Catholic diocese, worked to involve local people in all aspects of the production, from acting to preparation of the sets and costumes. ``This helped to give people a new sense of their significance and worth in an area of high unemployment,'' said Fr. Campbell.
``This area had been associated with violence for far too long, even though the vast majority of the people are peace-loving,'' Fr. Campbell added. ``The passion play and the preparations that have gone into it have given the media an opportunity to report on the other side of Divis.''
The play also gave Protestants the chance to identify with their Catholic neighbors in a practical way. Fr. Campbell said, ``It was important to us that so many non-Catholics came.''
One of the most telling comments was made by the former Presbyterian Church secretary, Jack Weir: ``The play was very effective in bringing us all nearer the story with which we are so familiar, and nearer to God and one another.''