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Catholic leaders give new demands as protest continues

Lusa - May 4, 2005

Dili – Amid signs in recent days of an emerging settlement to church protests against the East Timor government, leading Catholic clergymen made new demands Wednesday on the Dili executive including a call for a reconsideration of plans to relax the country's abortion laws.

A source involved in negotiations between the Dili authorities and leaders of the church-backed anti-government demonstrations told Lusa that Bishops Alberto Ricardo da Silva of Dili and Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau have sent fresh demands to Timor's heads of state and government.

Among new appeals from Timor's Catholic hierarchy is the demand that the government gives assurances it will not go ahead with its plans to decriminalize early termination of pregnancy.

On Tuesday, Dili had braced itself for possible clashes between Catholic protestors and and security forces, after police commanders had earlier given a deadline for the 16-day uprising to cease.

However, as the unauthorized protests continued into Tuesday night indications began to emerge of a negotiated end to the demonstrations by about 8,000 church supporters in the capital.

A spokesman for President Xanana Gusmco had told Lusa that Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri responded positively to a presidential initiative to reconsider plans to demote religion classes in state schools.

The government scheme to make religions education non-compulsory in some schools originally sparked the church-organized protest, with demands for the resignation of Alkatiri, a Muslim.

The presence of demonstrating nuns and priest acted to boost numbers of protestors from across Timor who rapidly aired wider grievances against the Dili executive.

Meanwhile, Timor's police chief has proposed to leaders of the Catholic protests that a new location in Dili is used for the demonstrations to continue to avoid disruption in the center of the capital.

At a meeting organized Wednesday by Sukehiro Hasegawa, the UN's special envoy to Timor, Police Chief Paulo Martins told a senior church representative that demonstrators were free to use the square and gardens around the Bishop of Dili's residence.

Martins also gave assurances to international diplomats and UN officials present that police would not carry out their earlier threat to forcibly end the protest centered on the Dili Government Palace.