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Catholics, government lower their rhetoric

Lusa - April 20, 2005

Dili – Hundreds of peaceful Catholic protestors kept up their pressure on East Timor's government for a second day Wednesday, but both the religious activists and the government toned down their sometimes inflamed rhetoric.

As more than 2,000 demonstrators prepared to a spend second night camped near Dili's government headquarters to demand mandatory religion classes in public schools, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri praised their "democratic maturity", apparently de-authorizing earlier virulent comments by senior officials.

In turn, the demonstrators largely abandoned Tuesday's demands for the government to resign and accusations Alkatiri was a "dictator", devoting themselves, instead, to prayer and singing.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the prime minister praised the protestors for their "orderly behavior", saying "the calm atmosphere" would help open "channels of dialogue between the government and the Catholic Church".

He also applauded "the exemplary work" of police keeping the demonstrators some 150 meters away from the government headquarters.

Earlier Wednesday, both the interior minister and the speaker of parliament blasted the church-organized demonstration as subversion aimed to topple the government and threatened to use force.

"We have information that they are preparing an assault on the government palace and have plans to paralyze Dili", Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato told Lusa, adding that police would "resort to legitimate use of force" if demonstrators tried to occupy government buildings.

Separately, Speaker Francisco Guterres issued a communique describing the demonstrations as a "pre-insurrectional" maneuver orchestrated by the Catholic Church in collusion with unspecified opposition forces.

Many of the protestors, including priests and nuns, remained on Dili streets overnight Tuesday after taking part in demonstrations ostensibly against government plans to relegate religious teaching in schools to an optional subject.

More protestors from East Timor's provinces have been prevented from entering the capital by police at checkpoints around the capital. On Tuesday Alkatiri said the unauthorized protest "did not create conditions for dialogue in any manner".

Tensions between the Catholic Church, which claims the adherence of about 96% of the country's 800,000 people, and the government have built up over the past two months.

An increasingly bitter war of words erupted after the government began implementing a pilot program in about 30 public schools to reduce religion classes to optional status.

The government has also said it planned to make church institutions responsible for paying the salaries of religion teachers.