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Fresh calls for government to resign

ABC Radio AM - April 30, 2005

Reporter: Rachel Carbonell

Elizabeth Jackson: A dispute between the church and state in East Timor has escalated, with fresh calls from Catholic leaders for the Government to resign.

Protesters have been demonstrating in the capital Dili for almost two weeks, upset over plans to change religious education in schools in the majority Catholic country.

Observers in East Timor say the demonstration is the biggest since the violent riots of 2002, and that members have swelled to more than 10,000.

The Government denies the demonstration is that big, but is urging protesters to go home, as Rachel Carbonell reports.

Rachel Carbonell: The secular Government of East Timor has upset the largely Catholic population with its plans to make moral and religious education in state schools voluntary.

After more than a week of peaceful demonstrations in Dili, high-level talks between the Government and the church were held.

The country's Muslim Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, emerged saying the issue had been resolved.

Father Agostinho Soares is one of the Catholic Church leaders who organised the demonstration, and he says the dispute is far from over.

Agostinho Soares: I think it is not true. The Prime Minister must resign, because he's not doing his job according to the constitution.

Rachel Carbonell: How many people do you think are now taking part in the demonstration in Dili?

Agostinho Soares: I think a lot of people, especially from the streets, a lot of people. I don't know, maybe, 15,000, something like that.

Rachel Carbonell: The Northern Territory Government's representative in East Timor, Mike Gallagher, who lives close by to where the demonstrations are being staged in central Dili says the numbers have swelled dramatically over the past week.

Mike Gallagher: Troops had come in from the eastern end of the island, which is Lospalos, and also the western end, near the border from Suai. At the moment it is what you'd call a tent city, complete with communal cooking facilities and even now port-a-loos. And a park is situated is front of the bishop's house.

Rachel Carbonell: It sounds as thought the protest, even though it's now continuing into its second week, remains peaceful.

Mike Gallagher: Fortunately that is the case, yes. The church is controlling the people very, very well.

Rachel Carbonell: The Catholic Church says the demonstration is about far more than religious education. It says protesters are concerned about justice, unemployment, hunger, the health system, and responsible and accountable government, and the demonstration won't end until those concerns are addressed.

A spokesman for the East Timorese Prime Minister told the ABC that the demonstrators are in their hundreds, not thousands. He says the conflict with the church has been resolved after a dialogue earlier in the week where an in-principle agreement was reached, and there is now no reason for the demonstration to continue.

The Prime Minister's spokesman says the only issue discussed at the Government's meeting with the church was religious and moral education, and the Government isn't paying attention to the calls for it to resign.

Elizabeth Jackson: Rachel Carbonell with that report.