Lisbon – Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said Thursday that the resolution last month of the dispute between his government and East Timor's powerful Catholic Church opens the door for debate in Timorese society on sensitive issues such as abortion and prostitution.
Speaking in Lisbon on his first official visit as prime minister to Portugal, Alkatiri recalled that the 17 days of church-backed demonstrations against the Dili government, originally over the issue of the teaching of religion in schools, had been ended after the signing of a joint declaration by the church and government.
Under this declaration, both sides affirmed that abortion should be defined as a crime, except to protect the mother's life, in Timor's draft penal code. Prostitution should also be a crime, the church and government agreed.
However, Alkatiri, making specific reference to "prostitution and abortion", said the agreement with the Catholic leadership "deals with issues affecting the conscience of each citizen and has the merit of opening debate to all society".
On the subject of religious education teaching in state schools, which sparked the unauthorized but peaceful protests in April, Alkatiri said "the subject exists but attendance is optional", as approved by the Dili cabinet last year "in a decision that was not well understood by the Catholic Church hierarchy".
Religion teachers are paid by the state, and "were never paid by the church", said Alkatiri, adding that the government pays "about USD 3 million annually to just under 2,000 teachers who give lessons in Catholic schools.
Anyone who alleged the government refused to pay religious education teachers in state schools "is either badly informed or had other intensions", he added.
The Timorese leader was speaking after a meeting with his Portuguese counterpart, Josi Sscrates, and said his first visit to Portugal was aimed at "finding new forms of cooperation in the areas of education and justice", considered by Dili as priority areas.
"Attracting private investment" to Timor is another key objective for the new nation, said Alkatiri, who arrived Tuesday in Portugal on a four-day stay.
His visit to Portugal, during which he also met President Jorge Sampaio, caps a European tour that took him to four other countries and the EU headquarters in Brussels.