Subject: AGE: Gusmao pays two brave priests a timely visit

Gusmao pays two brave priests a timely visit

By Jill Jolliffe

Fatumaca, East Timor

July 12 2003

On a sentimental journey to an unusual former guerilla support base, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao has paid homage to two priests who dedicated their lives to his country's freedom.

Just a day after he vetoed a draft law on immigration approved by Parliament, he also drew a political lesson. "In terms of this proposed law, these men would have been forbidden to help our guerillas," he said.

One of the clauses in the bill, criticised as xenophobic by the parliamentary opposition and human rights groups, states that "foreigners cannot provide religious assistance to defence and security forces".

Other clauses restrict foreigners from participating in any political activity.

The support base in question was the Don Bosco mission school at Fatumaca, 25 kilometres outside Baucau, nestling in the shadow of the mountain ranges from which the former guerilla chief led his comrades in their 24-year battle against the Indonesian army.

Italian priest Eligio Locatelli, 66, and Father Joao de Deus, a 75-year-old Portuguese, allowed the freedom fighters to use the school for secret meetings. The latter included Mr Gusmao's first encounter, in 1983, with the young Bishop Carlos Belo, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Officially, Mr Gusmao travelled to Fatumaca to present diplomas to the school's latest graduates, but the reunion with his loyal friends predominated. When the three men met on Wednesday evening, there was electricity in the air.

Mr Gusmao raised an affectionate toast "to we three old fellows", after which they spent hours laughing over old times and swapping war stories.

Both priests were arrested and beaten by the Indonesian military on various occasions, but never abandoned the nationalists. After Father de Deus survived one particularly savage beating, Bishop Belo issued a pastoral letter asking all Catholics to pray for him.

Father Locatelli helped broker a six-month ceasefire between the guerillas and the Indonesians, also in 1983.

In an interview with The Age, Mr Gusmao said the debate over the Immigration and Asylum Bill was "a benchmark for our young democracy". His veto followed a finding by the Constitutional Court that the bill was unconstitutional.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri attacked the court's decision, saying he won't "change a comma" of the bill. The Government can push it through on a second reading with a two-thirds majority, but its inflexibility has raised the possibility of a stand-off between presidential supporters and the governing Fretilin party.

Mr Gusmao urged respect for the court's ruling, but said he would not push the issue further for now.

"The problem is that today we're speaking of restricting foreigners' rights, to defend state security and national interests, but tomorrow we might be talking about restricting our own citizens' rights," he said.

Saying that he saw his role as primarily "moral and educational", Mr Gusmao was happy to let others draw the implications from his gesture of admiration for the two foreign priests who defended the East Timorese as their own.

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