The Church Leaders from Ireland participated in a special ceremony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Island of Ireland Peace Park, in the village of Messines, Belgium, on 11 and 12 November.
Archbishop Eamon Martin, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland; and Archbishop John McDowell, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland were accompanied by the Rev David Turtle, President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Very Rev Dr Rob Craig, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, representing the current Moderator, the Rt Rev Dr Sam Mawhinney, who was undertaking a week-long pastoral visit to the Presbytery of Omagh.
The ceremony, organised by the Mayor and the Town Council of Messines, the Irish and British embassies to Belgium, and the Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels, looked back to the Peace Park’s inauguration on Armistice Day 1998, as a symbol of peace and reconciliation following the conclusion of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
While attending the Island of Ireland Peace Park Archbishop Martin said, “Over the last century humanity has experienced so much war and violence; hatred and suspicion. The work of reconciliation and peace building at home, and around the world, is more important than ever. Our visit to Flanders fields this weekend renews our commitment to continuing the unfinished work of peace.”
The Peace Park was built by volunteers from the North and South of Ireland to commemorate the 200,000 Irishmen who fought in the First World War, and to embody the message of peace for the next generation.
An estimated thirty-five thousand Irish soldiers lost their lives in the war, many in the areas surrounding Ypres and Messines.
The park was opened by the then President of Ireland Mary McAleese, in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Their Majesties King Albert II and Queen Paola of the Belgians.
Containing a replica of an Irish round tower, it came about through the determination and inspiration of Paddy Harte, from Donegal, and Glenn Barr, from Derry-Londonderry, and is visited by many thousands of people each year.
It is located close to the site of the 1917 Battle of Messines Ridge, during which the 16th (Irish) Division fought alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division.
The Church Leaders met with the Barr and Harte families and spent time with a group of young people from Northern Ireland and international guests talking about peace and reconciliation.
A joint British military and Irish Defence Force bands provided music at the ceremony, which was followed by the unveiling of the Pillars of Peace project in nearby Messines Town Square in the company of representatives from Australia, Ukraine, Belgium, France, Germany, New Zealand, Britain and Ireland.
The Government of Ireland was represented by Minister for Education, Ms Norma Foley TD, and the Government of the United Kingdom was represented by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Lord Caine.
Minister Foley said, “As we stand here today, we are mindful that, that vision and spirit of peace and reconciliation is needed more than ever in our world.” Lord Caine described it as “a moving and humbling day.”
Speaking in advance of the ceremony, the Mayor of Messines, Mr Sandy Evrard, said, “We are here thanks to the hard work of two extraordinary people. Glenn Barr and Paddy Harte put Messines on the map with this memorial site, this symbol of reconciliation and peace. Twenty-five years later, this site is a World Heritage Site. We are therefore very grateful to them. This commemoration, and the unveiling of the Pillars of Peace, is another historic event for Messines.”