Northern Ireland churches join community leaders in Belfast peace bid

(Photo: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton)Protesters wave Union Flags in front of the City Hall provoked by a decision to remove the British flag from Belfast's City Hall Dec. 22, 2012.

The leader of Ireland's largest Presbyterian denomination has criticized violent protesters supporting the flying of Britain's Union flag in Belfast for increasing problems for Northern Ireland's Protestant Community as police arrested six men in connection with the violence.

"What start as legitimate peaceful protests are often leading to disruptive and violent actions that have no place whatsoever in our society and only increase all our problems and difficulties," said Rev. Roy Patton Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the biggest Protestant denomination in the British province.

In a message posted on the church's Web site, he said, "While this may not be the intention of those who initially bring people onto the streets they must think through for themselves the responsibility they have for what results and whether anything positive is being achieved for the welfare of their own communities."

Police said on Friday they arrested six men around Belfast in connection with the violent protests in which water cannons have been used to repel attackers.

Protesters wearing British union flags have for more than six weeks protested in the streets of Northern Ireland capital after some members of the city council decided on Dec. 3 to restrict the number of days the union flag would fly above Belfast city hall.

Instead the flag, supported by many Protestants who favor being part of Britain, will not fly everyday as it did in the past but only on special occasions.

The decision was made by lawmakers who want to see the north united with the Irish Republic as well as some other city representatives, triggering the protests in which "loyalists" have violently attacked members of the police force of Northern Ireland.

"The situation being faced by the police is intolerable and in keeping order on our streets and bringing people before the courts the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) must have the full support of all who want to see an end to this violence," said Patton.

"As church leaders along with politicians and community leaders, we welcome serious engagement with all our communities to ensure that they know they are valued and treated equally as citizens in a country that is living and working together for the mutual good of everyone."

A group of scores of local church and community organizations, some with links to extremist loyalist groups signed up for a leaflet entitled Violence Not Wanted in Belfast. It was distributed overnight in east Belfast, where most of the flag violence has begun.

Residents in the city who see the protests damaging years of relative peace in Northern were hoping that the calls of the church leaders and community groups might spur a halt to the violence local newspapers reported.

While the flag is seen as the protest trigger, some commentators have noted that a sagging economy has exacerbated discontent.

Northern Ireland faced more than 30 years of sectarian violence in which predominantly Catholic nationalists fought bitterly against the British presence opposed by the largely Protestant loyalists in an era known as The Troubles in which paramilitary thrived and more than 3,500 people were killed.

The leader of the Sinn Féin nationalist party said that the issue was about two flags, as republicans support the flag of the Irish republic.

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