- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 17, 2002

BELFAST Even in the best of circumstances, marriage is a leap of faith. But when Sean O'Hare wed Maureen Megaw in 1969, their union was no less than an act of bravery.
Sean is a Roman Catholic; Maureen, a Protestant.
In the 30 years since their wedding day decades in which Northern Ireland's sectarian "Troubles" have raged around them their marriage has flourished despite their religious differences.
And recent statistics show that, little by little, more interfaith couples are following them down the aisle.
The news offers a ray of hope for two communities that live so close together yet remain divided over rival British and Irish identities.
Figures produced in a University of Ulster report show that in 1989, only 6 percent of couples were of mixed denomination. The figures for 2000 show that 11 percent of couples were either in mixed marriages or consider themselves to be of "no religion" at all.
The percentage may actually be higher, experts say, if couples who live together without marrying to avoid family, church or community displeasure are taken into account.
It is a small increase but a significant one, bucking the general trend here toward increasing sectarian polarization in housing, employment, education and nearly every other sphere.
One of the report's authors, Gillian Robinson, a senior lecturer in policy studies at the University of Ulster, says hostility to mixed marriages is easing.
"Sixteen percent in 1998 thought most people in Northern Ireland would 'mind a lot' if a close relative were to marry into a different religion," Mrs. Robinson said. "Nine years previously, more than 33 percent of those interviewed thought people in general would mind a lot."
The Institute of Conflict Research found that the number of mixed marriages rose from 6 percent in 1989 to just over 10 percent in 1999.
The Institute's professor Marie Smyth says Protestants appear to have the greater fear of mixed marriages perhaps because they feel under threat from an increasingly confident Catholic population.
Although the latest national census figures will not be available until 2003, the general perception here is that the Catholic population is rising because of its higher birthrate. Mrs. Robinson says Protestants see themselves as a community in retreat.
One opponent to mixed marriages is the exclusively Protestant, 200-year-old Orange Order, formed to defend the reformed faith against the Roman Catholic Church.
Anyone joining the influential order, whose membership is estimated to be more than 50,000, has to swear that he was born a Protestant, of Protestant parents, is married to a Protestant, and will never attend any act of "popish worship." Members must also swear to "resist the ascendancy" of the Catholic Church "and the extension of its power."
The upward trend in interfaith marriages is of great satisfaction to the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) which, with the four main Christian denominations, recently produced a poster and a pamphlet offering practical advice for mixed-denomination couples.
Nigel Spiers, NIMMA's chairman, says the main churches are showing a more relaxed attitude to members of their congregation "marrying out." But he added: "Some people still have to leave Northern Ireland if they want to marry and settle down with someone of a different faith. There are still individual members of the clergy who are less than generous towards couples in mixed relationships."


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