Catholics burn Protestant churches in E. Timor

DILI, East Timor, June 16 Kyodo

Religious violence erupted last week in East Timor, with Catholic youths burning three Protestant churches and attacking a Protestant pastor, a U.N. spokeswoman said Friday.

Spokeswoman Barabara Reis told reporters three Protestant churches were burned on separate days last week in three villages in the Lekidoe area of Aileu district, about two hours south of Dili, the capital.

The Protestant pastor was physically assaulted and injured, and his motorbike burned as well, she said.

Reis said the incident was apparently sparked off when Protestant youths jeered at a Catholic procession carrying a statue of Jesus. Nighttime processions by the territory’s Catholics are a common occurrence in June.

She said U.N. civilian police in the district have called on all parties to exercise religious tolerance.

There has also been friction between East Timor’s overwhelming Roman Catholic majority and its tiny Muslim minority, who number only 265 in Dili.

Until Portuguese peacekeepers put a stop to it last month, the Muslim community in Dili had been subjected to weeks of stone throwing and intimidation by Catholic youths.

The Muslims, most of whom migrated to East Timor from Indonesia in recent years, are viewed by many native-born East Timorese as Indonesians who sided with pro-Jakarta militias responsible for much of last year’s violence.

The United Nations has since set up 24-hour protection around Dili’s only Muslim place of worship, the An-Nur mosque.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. administrator in East Timor, and Xanana Gusmao, East Timor’s independence leader, have both condemned the attacks.

De Mello has expressed confidence trust between the Muslim community and the rest of East Timor’s population can be rebuilt, while Xanana has urged his followers to accept the Muslims into East Timorese society.

Xanana, widely tipped to become East Timor’s first president after it becomes fully independent in one to two years, has said the government will be secular.

The persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, as well as East Timorese who initially opposed independence, has emerged as a key test of religious and political tolerance in the new nation.

Those who voted for the territory to remain a part of Indonesia, among whom are many members of pro-Jakarta militias that resorted to violence, have been slowly returning from refugee camps in Indonesia’s West Timor. Some have experienced intimidation upon their return.

Fears have been expressed the country’s tiny ethnic Chinese minority could also become a target of persecution as has been the case in many parts of Indonesia during times of economic hardship.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Kyodo News International, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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