Dili on edge after church urges protest

Dili, East Timor - East Timor was last night facing its worst crisis since independence after influential sections of the Catholic Church called people into the capital, Dili, to protest against the Government.

Scores of special police had blocked off the Parliament and key government buildings late yesterday as about 700 protesters gathered near the waterfront, many of them calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.

Police also set up road blocks on roads into Dili, stopping hundreds, perhaps thousands, from joining the protesters.

Witnesses said trucks carrying protesters were stopped by police as far away as Batugade, a town 112 kilometres from Dili, on the border with Indonesian West Timor.

Groups of people prevented from entering Dili sat by roadsides singing hymns. Some carried crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary.

"The centre of Dili is cordoned off. People can't get in," an Australian businessman in Dili said by telephone last night.

"Timorese are saying there has never been anything as potentially serious as this since independence."

All yesterday East Timor's Catholic radio had called on the tiny country's Catholics to "protest against Alkatiri - kick him out".

The call follows disagreement between the church, the most powerful institution in East Timor, and the Government over school curriculums.

The church wants the Catholic faith to be compulsorily taught in schools, but the Government insists that under the constitution East Timor is a secular state and that no one faith can be imposed on everyone. Relations between Mr Alkatiri, a Muslim in the predominantly Catholic country, and Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva appear to have broken down, even though the two men were seen greeting each other warmly at a function in Dili a few weeks ago.

Bishop da Silva replaced the Nobel laureate Bishop Carlos Belo, who resigned in 2002 because of ill health.

East Timor's Catholic radio, which broadcasts in the local Tetum language, yesterday told people: "Don't be scared for freedom."

The radio urged police to stop defending Mr Alkatiri and to "defend your own people".

One Australian with strong links to the church, who has worked in Dili since 1999, said last night he believed the crisis had been fuelled by much confusion and misrepresentation.

"People need to sit down and discuss the church-state issue in a quiet manner," he said.