Church-State Tension Rocks East Timor

10,000 Protest Optional Religious Instruction

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DILI, East Timor, MAY 6, 2005 ( Tension in East Timor over the question of religious instruction in public schools is threatening to degenerate into disorder and open violence, reported Fides news agency.

A meeting on Thursday between religious and government leaders, of the country formerly part of the Indonesian archipelago, failed to resolve a dispute that has been months in the making over a bill, passed in February, that made religious instruction optional.

Peaceful demonstrations began in mid April when local Church authorities criticized the government’s decision.

The media and the bishops urged that people ask for the measure to be revoked, and to reinstate compulsory religious education, but Muslim Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri took no action.

The demonstrations, which involve priests and religious, have increased in momentum. During the last two weeks, nearly 10,000 protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city of Dili.

The government has deployed security forces on streets and around major public buildings, as unrest grows and demonstrators refuse to go home.

The Catholic Church proposes that the teaching of religion continue to be compulsory, and that it should include the basic tenets of Protestant Christianity and Islam as well, to meet the needs of the country’s religious minorities.

Although no agreement has been reached on religious instruction in schools, which has led to the demand for Alkatiri’s resignation, the prime minister is keeping to his agenda. He will leave Dili to visit the interior of the country today, and will not return until May 11.

Observers say that opposition groups backed by pro-Indonesia militia could take advantage of the situation to destabilize the young republic, where there is social unrest among the people, scourged by poverty and unemployment.

East Timor is an Asian state of some 800,000 inhabitants, 96% of whom are Catholic, a legacy of Portuguese colonialism.

Unilaterally annexed by Indonesia in 1976, East Timor was the scene of atrocious violence in the weeks following the referendum on independence in August 1999.

Since May 20, 2002, the Democratic Republic of Timor has enjoyed recognition as a sovereign nation and is a member of the United Nations.

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