Subject: AFP: Catholic church keeps ETimor together

Agence France Presse

April 7, 2007 Saturday 4

Catholic church keeps ETimor together

Sebastien Blanc

DILI, April 7 2007

As Easter celebrations get into full swing Dili cathedral is packed. After mass, Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, in full campaign mode, shakes the hand and kisses the ring of Bishop Ricardo.

"We have not gone to civil war thanks to the church," Ramos-Horta -- seen as one of the strong contenders in Monday's presidential election in East Timor -- tells AFP.

Between 90 and 95 percent of the inhabitants of the tiny state, a former Portuguese colony which has been independent since 2002, are Catholic. And the vast majority are practising.

While the violence that has beset the poverty-stricken country for the past year has led the East Timorese to lose confidence in the government, the army and the police, they have kept their faith in the church.

The unrest that erupted last year forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee their homes and many of them headed to safe havens in Catholic churches and convents. A year on, some 37,000 people are still displaced.

"People always flee to the church," said Ramos-Horta, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, and one of eight candidates vying for the presidency.

"The church has always been a powerful uniting force and a powerful healing force in times of suffering."

It is also a political force in East Timor. Former prime minister Mari Alkatiri -- who resigned amid the unrest -- found that out the hard way, when he tried to ban compulsory religious education in public schools.

The member of the Fretilin party -- once a Marxist resistance movement fighting for independence -- was forced to back down in the face of protests organised by the clergy.

The Catholic church in East Timor, however, has not officially endorsed a candidate for the presidency.

"It's not (up) to the church to dictate who to choose," said Father Martinho Gusmao, a spokesman for the election commission.

"Officially, as an institution, we say all candidates are Catholic and we have no preference."

The election date, Easter Monday, is not insignificant, and could help see a drop in violence between rival factions. Some officials even tried to organise the election for Easter Sunday, but were dissuaded from doing so.

"Mixing up the dates like that could have been detrimental," said Jose Javier Pomes Ruis, chief of the EU observer mission for the election, in which 520,000 voters will cast their ballots for the new head of state.

Although the east-west ethnic split has spilled over into violence here over the past year, all East Timorese -- no matter what their background -- have remained faithful to the church, which has played a role in soothing tensions.

A year ago, the church organised a meeting in the town of Liquica, west of the capital, for residents from Los Palos in the far east and Oecussi in the west -- evidence of its position as a unifying force for the divided country.

This year, on Palm Sunday, the church managed to bring some 5,000 youths -- many of them more accustomed to fighting in the streets than praying -- into Dili cathedral.

"They fight together but they made a procession and joined together in the cathedral," explained Angelo Trindade, deacon in charge of youth movements in the Dili diocese.

"After the mass nothing happened -- no conflict, no killing."


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