Subject: Lusa: Catholic bishops studying PM Alkatiri's invitation for crisis talks

East Timor: Catholic bishops studying PM Alkatiri's invitation for crisis talks

Dili, April 22 (Lusa) - Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, under pressure from unrelenting Catholic demonstrations, has written to East Timor's bishops proposing talks "as quickly as possible", a church official said Friday.

In his letter Thursday, Alkatiri thanked the two bishops for the restrained character of the street protests, now in their fourth day, and called for government-church talks at the highest level, Dili's vicar general, Father Apolinário Guterres, told Lusa.

Bishops Alberti Ricardo da Silva of Dili and Basílio do Nascimento of Baucau, he added, were studying the prime minister's invitation for talks and would respond "as soon as possible".

The continuous Dili demonstrations, which began Tuesday, were ostensibly launched to press the government into not implementing plans to demote religion classes in the predominantly Catholic country's public schools to the status of optional subjects.

But the protesters, armed with images of the Virgin Mary, rapidly broadened their demands to include denunciations of general government policy and calls for "dictator" Alkatiri to resign.

Questioned by Lusa on President Xanana Gusmão's criticism Thursday of the use of religious symbols to attain political goals, Rev. Guterres suggested the president was out of touch with his people.

"If the head of state has the right to say what he thinks, he also has the duty to listen to the people to know exactly what the reality is", the church spokesman said.

The priest confirmed that authorities had ceased trying to block the entry into the capital of new demonstrators, trucked to Dili from rural areas.

On Friday, some 2,000 protesters, gathered near the government's headquarters, saw members of the police cordon guarding the government building weep when nuns offered them flowers, inviting the officers to place them before the crowd's 10 statues of Our Lady.

Alkatiri and other members of government said early on that they would not negotiate under pressure from demonstrators and charged the church-organized protests were subversive acts aimed to topple the administration.



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