Political analysts said the statement from the Catholic bishops, who had refused to fully endorse Britain's original scheme, would buoy British hopes of progress on the barbed issue.
Britain has given feuding politicians until Tuesday to support its latest attempt to restyle the Protestant-dominated service and so end policing disputes that have helped stall the landmark Good Friday peace accord.
The statement issued jointly by the church's Northern Irish bishops said toughened-up plans from Britain to transform the Royal Ulster Constabulary into a more Catholic-friendly force merited full Catholic backing and no intimidation of Catholic recruits.
"We believe that the time is now right for all those who sincerely want a police service that is fair, impartial and representative to grasp the opportunity that is presented and to exercise their influence to achieve such a service," said the bishops, led by Ireland's Catholic primate, Archbishop of Armagh Sean Brady.
Referring to past Irish Republican Army attacks on Catholic recruits and their families, they said, "young Catholics must feel totally free to choose whether or not to participate in the new policing service. Failure to respect that right, in any form, would be a profound contravention of their human rights."
Britain last week published 70 pages of revised commitments on policing, the latest gesture designed to underpin Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant and to spur a start to IRA disarmament, the issue threatening to tear apart the power-sharing coalition.
The Catholic hierarchy's verdict increased the chance that one of the two Catholic-supported parties in the coalition would soon endorse the British plans.
The moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, the larger Catholic-supported party in Northern Ireland's four-party coalition, said it would announce Tuesday whether it would nominate members to sit on a new civilian Policing Board. Britain has been hoping the SDLP, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate John Hume, would take this step since unveiling its original police-reform legislation in 1999.
Sinn Fein, the hard-line Catholic party linked with the outlawed IRA, has already rejected the latest police reform plans and vowed not to take part in the board, which is supposed to oversee the Royal Ulster Constabulary's transformation into a new Police Service that would specifically target Catholic recruits.
Sinn Fein Chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said his party's supporters shouldn't face "intimidation or pressure" tsupport a new police force. He said Sinn Fein was growing stronger than the SDLP regardless of Catholic church support for the moderate bloc.
The major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, has indicated its own support for police reform would depend on whether moderate Catholics joined the project. Ulster Unionists loathe many of the changes planned for the RUC, which has had more than 300 members killed and thousands maimed in terrorist attacks since 1969.
The effort to share power among Protestants and Catholics remains in danger of collapsing by late September, the apparent deadline for the vacated top post in the administration to be filled. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble resigned as "first minister" seven weeks ago in protest at the IRA's refusal to start disarming as the Good Friday peace pact of 1998 intended.
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