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Protests in Dili challenge government

Green Left Weekly - April 27, 2005

Jon Lamb – A series of rallies organised by the Catholic Church in East Timor is another sign of the simmering discontent and frustration held by many East Timorese. Ostensibly rallies about religious education in schools, the demonstrations – the largest in Dili since the formal declaration of independence in May 2002 – also took up issues of justice and democracy, with a distinctly anti-government flavour.

The church called the demonstrations, which have varied in size from 2000 up to 5000 people since they started on March 18, in response to the Fretilin-led government's proposal to trial secular education programs in 32 schools, with voluntary religious teaching offered. The move has angered the Catholic Church hierarchy, a significant force in East Timorese society and politics.

Father Domingos Soares, a prominent priest associated with the campaign to end the Indonesian occupation, denounced the government's proposals. "The people and the Catholic Church have joined peacefully for an end to this extremist government", he said. Banners at the protests have criticised the government over lack of accountability and called for an "end to the dictatorship".

The government has accused the Catholic Church of creating a volatile situation. A statement released by Francisco Guterres, the parliamentary speaker and Fretilin president, condemned "the profoundly political and pre-insurrectional demonstration organised by the church hierarchy".

Other East Timorese have been concerned by the actions and statements of both the government and the Catholic Church. Ina Bradridge, a child welfare campaigner and one of the publishers of the weekly Timor Sun, told Green Left Weekly, "I think the church cannot force the state, the government, or the people to have to learn Catholic religion in school".

Bradridge added that she was "Very, very disappointed by the police and government at the way they were armed and holding their big guns... is it necessary to do that? You can't have fully armed police blocking the roads because of a protest. It is disgusting. This is not democracy... this is not the freedom we fought for. I'm really disappointed".

Another concern for Bradridge was the presence of children and young people at the demonstrations. "I don't agree with the church's use of children at the protest... that's not right. As a parent, I have a right over what religion my children are to be taught... it should not be forced by the church".

Tomas Freitas, an East Timorese human rights campaigner, is also concerned by the use of the justice issue by the church. "I think in this instance they are using this issue to push their own agenda about religious education", he told Green Left Weekly. Freitas told how one banner he saw attacked the government's decision because it would lead to the "spread of communism".

The church's use of the lack of justice for the victims of human rights abuses at the recent rallies, nonetheless, does reflect a very deep frustration and sentiment held by many East Timorese.

"About human rights in East Timor... it feels like we've actually got none", Bradridge stated. "I'm not really happy about the present situation. I cannot just point the finger at [prime minister] Mari Alkatiri... what about [president] Xanana, what about [foreign minister] Horta? What are they doing? And what is the church really doing about justice? "We were fighting for more than 24 years and before that over 400 years, for justice. At the end of the day I understand that we have to forgive, we have to move on beyond the past. But a lot of people... such as myself, such as those who were imprisoned, tortured and suffered terrible things, we need to see some results."