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Protestant, Catholic Leaders in Northern Ireland Appeal for Unity

The Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders of Northern Ireland's four biggest churches appealed on Thursday for their long-divided flocks to unite politically in 2007.
( [email protected] ) Dec 29, 2006 11:20 AM EST

DUBLIN, Ireland (AP) - The Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders of Northern Ireland's four biggest churches appealed on Thursday for their long-divided flocks to unite politically in 2007.

In a joint statement, Catholic Archbishop Sean Brady, Presbyterian Moderator David Clarke, Church of Ireland Archbishop Robin Eames and Methodist President Ivan McElhinney said their people "face a year of decision which will affect our future and that of our children and grandchildren."

Their comments were directed at the hope of forging a stable Catholic-Protestant administration, the central goal of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord.

Britain says a new Northern Ireland Assembly will be elected March 7, and its members are supposed to form a cross-community coalition a week later. But the major Protestant-backed party, the Democratic Unionists, says it will not cooperate with Sinn Fein until that Catholic-backed party starts supporting the police force, a step Sinn Fein refuses to take.

"The decisions we make will either take us forward into a shared future with a mindset of moving forward together or leave us in the past, trapped by our grudges and prejudices," the four church leaders warned.

They asked the general public to pray for political progress and to scrutinize their own attitudes towards the other side of the community.

"We ask everyone to reject those words, attitudes and actions which fuel prejudice and sectarianism," they said. "In this way we believe everyone can play a significant part in finding a way forward around which we can all unite in a spirit of equality and respect for one another."

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 shortly before the rest of Ireland, which is mostly Catholic, won independence from Britain. The 2001 census indicated that about 55 percent of Northern Ireland's 1.7 million residents identify themselves as British Protestants, 35 percent as Irish Catholics.

More than 3,600 people have died since 1966 in politically motivated violence. The bloodshed largely abated when paramilitary cease-fires took hold in the mid-1990s but much of Northern Ireland remains divided on political-religious lines.

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