Belfast: prayers for peace, as riots continue

Holy Cross Church

Holy Cross Church

As the  streets of Ardoyne in north Belfast erupted into a fourth night of riots yesterday,  a priest whose parish is in the heart of the battleground, lead hundreds in a peaceful assembly appealing, and praying,  for an end to the violence.

Passionist priest, Fr Gary Donegan from Holy Cross Church,  Ardoyne, spoke with ICN earlier in the day. He said: "These crowds are not as aggressive as they were on the first night. .. The worrying thing is that many of them are so young. Last night I challenged a little boy, I took some stones from his hands and he  asked  'are you are a priest?'  He didn't know me.  He didn't come from this area. He told me he was 12. I asked him his date of birth and that caught him out. He was just nine. How did a little fellow like this find himself in the middle of a riot?  With plastic bullets ricocheting all over the place, he could have been killed.
"Last night I was also challenged by an eight year boy. I tried not to laugh. This is becoming almost recreational rioting. Young girls are arriving all dressed up and egging on the boys to fight.  They are sending each texts and posting up pictures of themselves on social networking sites. But there have been some very serious casualties. One young policewoman had a piece of concrete land on her head.

Since the riots began, many of Fr Gary's parishioners have been too frightened to go out of doors. While the organisers decided not to change the route of the march - as suggested by more moderate community leaders, Fr Gary has had to reroute a funeral and a baptism.

Describing the Protestant parade through a Catholic area as a "glorified coat trailing exercise" designed to provoke a reaction, Fr Gary said it was pity that  an earlier compromise route suggested by moderate community groups, hadn't been taken up.

Many people are just lying low and not getting involved, he said. One Catholic woman was beaten up and hit on the head with a brick.  Fr Gary said: "They are a wonderful family responsible parents. All the three children  been altar servers.  The husband is a big man. Instead of staying around here, today he took his wife, with her head full of stitches, and the children off to the cinema to see Shrek.

By five o'clock on Thursday, Fr Gary said he had been out walking the streets for 130 hours - talking with people, standing in the middle of confrontations, confiscating petrol. "Anything I can do to calm things," he said.

'Holy Cross parish is at a most contentious interface" he said. "We are four steps away from the Loyalist area.  Before the ceasefire, 99 people from the parish were killed and  many more people being injured."

"What we need is dialogue. We need to forget our history. This is not 1690. It is not 1969. As Christians we are called to love our enemies. We need to sit down and talk." .

Before he became parish priest  about eight years ago, Fr Gary lived in the nearby monastery. "People sometime say: 'why don't you go back there and have a peaceful life and pray.' But I wouldn't swap this place for the world. They are the most wonderful, loyal and generous people."

In a statement read in Fr Gary's parish of Holy Cross, at the evening Vigil Mass on Saturday and at Sunday Masses before the marching began,  Most Rev Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor, appealed for peace saying: "I know that in recent years many of you have worked with fellow Christians from other Churches and traditions, community leaders, politicians, statutory organisations and the police, to bring about a better community, social and economic environment for everyone in the area. This has involved the sometimes slow and challenging work of promoting mutual understanding, good neighbourliness and patient mediation of conflict.

"I appeal to you all to continue on this path. Together with you I ask that only words and actions be used that advance the immense progress in community relations and quality of life from which all have benefited in recent years. With other Christian communities in the area I ask you to do all in your power to ensure that the coming days are marked by good neighbourliness, an emphatic rejection of violence and a commitment to the common good.

"To you who are young and have your life before you, I say use your energy and youthful potential to promote, as Christ would have it, peace through non-violence, justice through tolerance and mutual respect for all. I plead with all young people not to be drawn in to the misery, futility and inhumanity of violence. I ask you to choose a better way by working for a brighter future for yourselves and for all the people of this island.

"I assure you of my prayers for the people of Holy Cross, for Fr Gary and the Passionist Community and for all the people of Ardoyne and the surrounding area over the coming days."

*Last Sunday evening, in London,  Canon Pat Browne, Roman Catholic Duty Priest to the Houses of Parliament lead ecumenical  prayers for peace at Westminster Abbey.

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