East Timor Govt agrees to Church demand on schools

Following more than two weeks of protests, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao (pictured) has signed a declaration with church groups, recognising that religious classes must be part of the regular curriculum, taught during school hours.

Radio Australia reports that the protests, which ended with the signing of the declaration on Saturday, started after the Government announced it would make Catholic education in schools voluntary.

At the height of the protests, which saw crowds of more than 10,000 people, church leaders called for the East Timorese prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, to resign.

There are claims that some of the protesters who came from outlying areas, at the request of the Church, did not know what the demonstrations were about.

Under the agreement, attendance is to be left to the discretion of parents.

The Rome news agency Zenit quotes a report of a meeting on Thursday between religious and government leaders that failed to resolve the dispute, which was caused by a bill passed in February that made religious instruction optional.

The media and the bishops urged that people ask for the measure to be revoked, and to reinstate compulsory religious education, but Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri took no action.

The Church proposed that the teaching of religion continue to be compulsory, and that it should include the basic tenets of Protestant Christianity and Islam as well, to meet the needs of the country's religious minorities.

Observers feared that opposition groups backed by pro-Indonesia militia could take advantage of the situation to destabilise the country, where there is social unrest among the people, scourged by poverty and unemployment.

Dispute over religion in East Timor schools ends (ABC Radio Australia 9/5/05)
Church-State Tension Rocks East Timor (Zenit 6/5/05)

Renewed Church 'uprising' threatens East Timor Stability (CathNews /5/05)

10 May 2005