In British-ruled Northern Ireland, a place where tribal loyalties and emotions run deep, falling in love can be a dangerous and even deadly business.

Despite a peace deal in 1998 to end 30 years of bloody Protestant-Roman Catholic conflict, marriage between members of the two churches can be controversial to the point of taboo.

Threats, assaults, gasoline bombing of homes and in some cases murder are among the hazards faced by the small minority who decide to tie the knot across the divide.

Liam is a Catholic who lives with his Protestant wife on the edge of north Belfast, traditionally one of the city's most volatile areas and still a frequent flash point for violence.

He considers himself to be among the lucky ones.

"We were more fortunate than most in that our families accepted the marriage, and also we live in a more mixed area, but you hear some real horror stories," he said.

"We've had isolated incidents -- usually just sarcastic comments, but my wife got a threatening letter one time. Other people have had to leave their homes or had nail bombs through the window because she's a Catholic and he's a Protestant or whatever. Some of it has happened close to here."

While tensions have eased in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, attitudes remain entrenched on both sides after decades of bitter strife between majority Protestants committed to links with Britain and a Catholic minority in favor of unity with the Irish republic to the south.

More than 3,600 people have been killed as opposing guerrilla factions carried out bombing and killing campaigns over the last 30 years of "the Troubles," stoking fear, hatred and further polarizing communities in a province with a population of just 1.6 million.

Philomena McQuillan, who runs the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association, receives about 200 calls a year from people who are being made to suffer because they have crossed the line in their choice of life partner.

Most of the sad tales she hears concern family rejection.

"There are some very tough cases, where one or other family has turned against the couple and the problems have gone on for 20 years or more," McQuillan said.

"In some cases we've had the grandparents not accepting the grandchildren, which is very nasty -- where granny becomes the enemy. That's a dreadful slap in the face on a daily basis."

Another couple had to move because of the taunting their children received for not attending a Catholic school. In more extreme cases, others have had their homes burned down or been targeted by gunmen.

Protestant and Catholic churches have traditionally discouraged "marrying out."

On the Protestant side, the position is bolstered by the 60,000-strong Orange Order -- a grass-roots organization dedicated to preserving the Protestant heritage -- which forbids its members even from entering a Catholic church, let alone marrying a Catholic.

The Catholic Church's "Ne Temere" decree refused to recognize any marriage not celebrated in a Catholic church and required both parties to promise in writing that children would be brought up in the faith.

In recent times, the churches have relaxed their positions, and social changes wrought by the peace process -- a revival of city nightlife, for example, and anti-discrimination laws in the workplace -- have increased interaction and boosted tolerance of cross-community unions.

According to the latest research, the proportion of Protestant-Catholic couples has doubled in the past decade to more than 10 percent of the province's married population, but practical problems linger.

"The marriage itself was a bit of a headache because my parish priest was an old-school type who wanted me to sign a declaration that I'd bring my children up Catholic," said Liam. "I refused, so he wouldn't give me a dispensation to get married in a Protestant church. Six weeks before your wedding, that's the last thing you need."

Liam eventually went to a more sympathetic priest.

The Rev. Harold Good, a former president of the Protestant Methodist church in Ireland, has officiated at dozens of inter-church wedding ceremonies.

He says the Catholic Church's stance has softened but it can still be difficult to get consent.

"I usually try and devise a service that brings together the best of both traditions in a way that everyone there would be comfortable with. When a priest would be sharing the ceremony with me I would try and give him a proper part in the service rather than just a token role," he said.

Canon Brendan Murray, a Catholic Church spokesman on mixed marriage, said that the situation has changed dramatically in the past 10 years and that most applications to marry out are readily approved.

"The Catholic partner is still asked to put the case as best they can for bringing the children up Catholic, but not in such a way as to put a strain on the marriage," Murray said.

Anne Odling-Smee, an English Catholic married to the son of an Anglican vicar, believes things have moved on from the "astonishingly" segregated society she and her husband found when they arrived in the province in 1970.

"We were a phenomenon in that the Protestant didn't [become a Catholic], as it were. We had an equal tradition marriage. We also had three girls and three boys who we baptized alternately -- three Catholic, three Protestant," she said.

"Needless to say, we were regarded as very strange creatures."

Shocked by the difficulties they encountered in providing schooling for their family, the Odling-Smees became campaigners for integrated education, which they see as crucial to dismantling the sectarian mind-set .

"How do you teach tolerance if you've never seen a Protestant?" she said.

"At least in school they're talking and making friends."

Of Northern Ireland's 1,200 schools, 45 are now integrated, compared with none 20 years ago.

"I think the Catholic Church has moved quite a long way, has accepted mixed marriages are happening and is trying to look after its people, but we still need a lot more understanding of each other's languages," Odling-Smee said.

Liam concurs, but said zealots on both sides will still try to attach stigma to inter-church marriages.

"Lack of respect is the problem. In the end, you might not agree with a certain religion and the way it goes, but at least respect it and agree to be different," he said.

"I just hope my children benefit from having the best of both worlds and grow up to have that respect."