APSN Banner

Row in East Timor over religion in schools

ABC Online The World Today - April 21, 2005

Reporter: Rachel Carbonell

Eleanor Hall: The President of East Timor is playing down concerns that the dispute between Church and State that's erupted in the young nation could escalate. Police are barricading government buildings in the capital Dili, as thousands of people protest against plans to make religious education in East Timor's state schools voluntary.

It's estimated that 95 per cent of East Timor's population is Catholic, and the Catholic Church wants its faith taught as a compulsory subject. But the country's president, Xanana Gusmao, is insisting on a more secular approach.

From Darwin, Rachel Carbonell reports.

Rachel Carbonell: Leaders from the Catholic Church in East Timor organised the demonstration, which began on Monday. Mike Gallagher is the Northern Territory Government's representative in East Timor. Speaking by mobile phone from close by to the demonstration, he says numbers have swelled overnight.

Mike Gallagher: I started to head back to my usual vantage point, but this morning I was stopped by the warden, and not permitted to go down to where the major groupings are taking place.

The crowd has been increased by the involvement of school children coming from the district. The Seminarians are also joining in, and they're coming down in their various denomination groups. And the crowd has started to gather down adjacent to the government building.

I am on the eastern side, as I was yesterday, and the crowd is there, they are again singing hymns, prayers and making speeches.

Rachel Carbonell: The demonstrators are upset over Government plans to run a pilot program in about 30 schools where morality and religious education will be taught as optional rather than compulsory subjects.

The Government says the decision stems from East Timor's constitution, which states that the young nation is a secular one. The President of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao, wants the two parties to sit down with each other. But his Chief of Staff, Agio Pereira, says the protests are not major concern.

Agio Pereira: Well, the President always urges joint efforts to work on things that are of national interest, and therefore the President continues to urge that all parties break the barriers of misunderstanding and reach agreement, even if at the end they have to agree to disagree.

Rachel Carbonell: Some of the protestors have been calling for the Prime Minister of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, to resign. Is that a concern?

Agio Pereira: Well, you see, it is normally in the democratic environment that people, when they go to protest, because they have serious sentiments, are negative about the Government. They always call for the Government to resign. In Australia, it's normal people to call for Prime Minister Howard to resign. And it's not unusual to happen. It doesn't happen often here, that's why sometimes people find it unusual.

Rachel Carbonell: Is there any fear that this protest could be destabilising for the Government of East Timor at all?

Agio Pereira: So far there is no sign that can indicate or justify this fear.

Rachel Carbonell: Have you spoken to the President, Xanana Gusmao, about this protest, and if so what did he say to you about it?

Agio Pereira: The President upholds the rights enshrined in the constitution of all the citizens, and at this stage the President views is that these protests as expression of citizens willing to use these rights in the democratic space that is guaranteed by the constitution. And as long as there's no violence, and as long as there's no attitudes that go beyond what is acceptable by law and democracy, the President thinks is a test of our democratic processes of a young nation of less than three years.

Rachel Carbonell: Some witnesses say police are trying to prevent more protestors from joining the demonstration by blocking the access points to the capital from outlying districts. The President's Chief of Staff says that's not the case, police are merely trying to keep the law and order and make sure everything goes smoothly.

Eleanor Hall: Rachel Carbonell with that report.