Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance UK asks to “pray for youth workers, church leaders and others working behind the scenes to ease tensions and work for peace”.
The riots that started at the end of March in Northern Ireland have caused over 80 injured police officers and 18 detentions.
The situation at this point is “complex and driven by a number of factors”, Christians in Belfast say.
Among Unionists or Loyalists (those who want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom), there has been frustration at the fact that the funeral of a well-known member of the paramilitary pro-independence group IRA which attracted over 2,000 people (including government ministers) and breached lockdown restrictions, did not lead to police prosecutions.
But the effects of Brexit on the creation of a new "regulatory" border has also unsettled members of the Unionist community, who feel betrayed by the Great Britain authorities. Yet another cause for the recent street violence is a crackdown of the police on criminal activities of the largest loyalist paramilitary group.
But for Peter Lynas, UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance and from Northern Ireland, there has been and additional factor that needs to be taken into account. “Lockdown has created a build up of tension and a lack of community, religious and sporting spaces for those tensions to be aired in a safe way”.
Together, all these realities “set the scene for the recent riots”, says Lynas, which have been “relatively isolated, but nonetheless serious”.
[photo_footer]Peter Lynas, Evangelical Alliance UK Director. / EAUK
Churches in Northern Ireland are familiar with the socio-political tensions in the region. Christian communities have been “committed working in these areas for a long period. But the pandemic paused much of these initiatives”.
“Ministers, church leaders and youth workers have all been doing their best to engage” the situation and reduce tensions. “As restrictions are relaxed, they are trying to find ways to bring people together on the ground”, says Lynas. This includes the Evangelical Alliance, which hosted “a Zoom prayer meeting last Friday, and is bringing practitioners together this week”.
Northern Ireland has “seen a long period of peace”, explains the EAUK representative, “but limited reconciliation in that time”. The main political parties “continue to engage in a form of identity politics, playing to their base and Brexit has undoubtedly heightened tensions”.
The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union has changed the expectations in the region. “Many in the nationalist community believe it brings a united Ireland closer. Many of the Unionist community feel further detached from the rest of the United Kingdom”.
[photo_footer]Police officers in Belfast, Northern Ireland. / Photo: Joshua Hayes, Flickr, CC
Are these riots a serious challenge to the coexistence in Northern Ireland? “I don’t believe that the riots themselves are a risk to the peace agreements in Northern Ireland, but the underlying issues are”, says the Evangelical Alliance Director.
“The EU and the UK government need to find a pragmatic way to make the Northern Ireland protocol work - there are genuine concerns about supplies of food and medicine. If they can't, the situation will be further destabilised, potentially leading to more rioting and ultimately putting the peace agreements at risk”.
Christians in other places can pray for Northern Ireland in several ways, concludes Lynas. “Please pray for youth workers, church leaders and others working behind the scenes to ease tensions and work for peace. Please pray for our political leaders as they try and navigate the tensions around Northern Ireland's unique role within the EU and the UK”.
Finally, “please pray that as lockdown eases and churches and other spaces open, that people will find ways healthier to express their concerns. Churches have a critical role to play and church leaders are tired after this unprecedented season and acutely aware of the mental health challenges that lie ahead”.