Subject: UCAN: Reject violence, priest urges prisoners at Easter

UCAN: Reject violence, priest urges prisoners at Easter 4/16/2007

UCANews> DILI, Timor Leste (UCAN) ­ At the Easter celebration in Dili's main jail, Father Francisco Barreto asked prisoners to turn their back on the "dark life" and "come back to God."

In his homily to 200 assembled prisoners in Becora Prison on Easter Sunday, April 8, Father Barreto told them: "If you reflect and confess your sins, I am sure that Jesus will rescue you."

Father Barreto is the face of the Catholic Church's prison ministry for men in Catholic-majority Timor Leste (East Timor). He is a familiar visitor at the small, damp Indonesian-built facility in Becora, Dili, where prisoners are cramped four or five to a cell.

Many of them have been convicted or charged with violence and possession of weapons in civil unrest last year, when "easterners" and "westerners" battled with machetes, guns, and bows and arrows on the streets of the capital.

Father Barreto told the men gathered in the prison chapel, where he offers Mass every Sunday, that it is important especially during Easter to reflect, confess and forgive.

According to the priest, the judicial process is slow and many of those charged are awaiting trial. One such prisoner is Luis Viegas, 36, who was detained nearly a year ago during the unrest that erupted in April. He told UCA News after the Mass that he missed celebrating Easter with his family.

Another prisoner, Joao Gusmao, 33, said he too was sad to be celebrating Easter in jail.

Last year's communal violence began after the government dismissed more than a third of the army. The dismissed soldiers, from the western part of the country, had protested alleged discrimination at the hands of easterners, considered the backbone of the resistance against Indonesian rule during the 1980s and 1990s. Indonesia took control of Timor Leste in 1975, soon after the Portuguese colonial administration withdrew. Local people voted for independence in a referendum the United Nations conducted in 1999.

Tension sparked by the soldiers' complaints and dismissal degenerated into clashes between groups. At least 20 people died and 100,000 were displaced. The displaced people either stayed with relatives or took refuge in camps, many of which were set up on the grounds of Catholic churches and centers.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Solidarity recently reported 64,367 people still living in 44 camps in the Dili area, where the violence was concentrated. People sheltering in these makeshift refuges remain fearful that violence awaits them should they return to their homes. Some cannot return because their houses were burned in the rioting.

Deacon Angelo Salsinha, 32, who heads the church's youth commission, took part in the prison Mass. He told UCA News the same day that he felt saddened to see so many young people in the prison awaiting judgment in court.

The church worker complained about the slow judicial process, saying suspects should wait no longer than three months in prison for their cases to come to trial. "But these people have been waiting a year. They are the victims of a failed judiciary in this country," he observed.

Deacon Salsinha spoke of plans to bolster ministry to young prisoners. "In a very short time, I will make regular visits to them to talk to them, to refresh their faith and morale," he said.

In addition to Father Barreto's ministry, a Salesian nun regularly visits the prisoners to offer them counseling.

Timor Leste, where Catholics make up 96 percent of the population of about 1 million, was a Portuguese colony for four centuries before its 25 years under Indonesian rule, a time marked by violence linked to the independence struggle. A transitional U.N. administration governed following the August 1999 referendum until full independence in May 2002.

- - -

Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (> or call Annette Sweet on 9278 4639.

Back to April menu 
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu