Subject: AFP: E Timor PM refuses calls to step down

Also: East Timor president accuses Catholic church of inciting anti-government protests

Last Update: Saturday, April 23, 2005. 5:36pm (AEST) E Timor PM refuses calls to step down

East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatari downplayed a Catholic church-backed protest held earlier this week in Dili and rejected demonstrators' calls that he step down.

"According to international press reports there were no more than 1,000 people at the protest, which does not seem very significant for a Church which has the support of more than 90 per cent of the population," he told Portuguese daily newspaper Publico.

On Tuesday, there had been reports of at least 3,000 people responding to calls from priests to gather outside government offices in Dili to demand compulsory religious education in schools in what observers say was one of the largest protests since East Timor gained sovereignty in May 2002.

About 96 per cent of East Timor's 800,000 people are Roman Catholic. The former Portuguese colony also has Muslim and Protestant minorities.

The Government decided in February that there should be no mandatory religious education in the national curriculum although students could study it if they wished.

Father Benancio Araujo, a spokesman for Dili Diocese, called on the demonstrators to "topple the anti-democratic regime" while several at the peaceful protest demanded that the Prime Minister resign.

Mr Alkatri rejected the charges that his Government was not democratic, arguing that if this was the case nations like Australia and Portugal which have invested in East Timor since it gained independence from Indonesia would have already denounced his administration.

"They never did this because we are an effective democracy," he told the newspaper.

Asked if he would consider stepping down or calling a snap poll, Mr Alkatri said: "I will neither resign nor call early elections."

"The fact that some members of the church asked for the resignation of the Prime Minister in recent days demonstrates well how the Church went beyond its role of preaching, education, aiding the poor, being a critical conscience," he said.

The protest is the latest in a series of conflicts between the Government and the Church, which played a key role in the push for East Timor's independence.


--- AP

East Timor president accuses Catholic church of inciting anti-government protests

East Timor's president on Saturday accused the country's Roman Catholic Church of instigating anti-government protests demanding the introduction of compulsory religious classes in schools.

Thousands of people have taken part in peaceful rallies in the capital Dili over the past week. About 6,000 people protested on Saturday, demanding that the leftist government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resign over the issue.

President Xanana Gusmao said he welcomed the protests as a sign that East Timor is a democracy but he criticized demonstrators who are calling for the sacking of Alkatiri.

"We are thankful that (people) are calling attention to the problems but the change of the government must be done according to the constitution," Gusmao said on the sidelines of the Asian-African summit in Jakarta.

"If not, then every time you don't like a prime minister you can just ask him to resign," he said.

Gusmao blamed the church for the protests, which come a month before the fledgeling nation marks the third anniversary of its independence.

"The church is organizing this," he said. "I don't believe it's appropriate for the church to do this."

"If it is about religion, we can accept this. If it is for political motives, we don't accept too much involvement of the church in these demonstrations."

East Timor is one of two predominantly Catholic nations in East Asia. About 96 percent of its 800,000 people are Roman Catholics, and there are small Muslim and Protestant minorities.

The country's secular government decreed in February that religion should not be a compulsory subject in government schools, although it would be made available as an option for all students.

East Timor gained independence in May 2002 after a U.N.-supervised referendum in 1999 brought an end to Indonesia's occupation of the former Portuguese colony.

During Indonesian rule, religion classes were mandatory in all schools.

In addition to demanding more religion in schools, demonstrators also have pressed for justice for victims of the 1999 violence, when up to 2,000 people were killed by withdrawing Indonesian troops and their militia proxies.

Political and economic ties with Jakarta have blossomed since independence, and the two governments have agreed not to prosecute those responsible for the bloodshed. Instead, they have formed a joint commission aimed at bringing about reconciliation between the two sides.

Gusmao also said the country faced a long list of problems _ poverty, joblessness and lack of infrastructure. He said he would encourage donor nations that are scheduled to meet in the capital Dili next week to continue providing aid to his country.

"As president, my concern is about the economic situation of the people," he said. "For us to solve this, we need money. We cannot have plans without money. Basically, we (want donor countries) to continue to help us."

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