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Church to help ensure peaceful Timor-Leste polls

Country has a history of political violence stemming from rivalry between former freedom fighters
Cardinal Virgílio do Carmo da Silva of Dili (right) and National Election Commission president, Jose Belo during a press conference on Feb. 2

Cardinal Virgílio do Carmo da Silva of Dili (right) and National Election Commission president, Jose Belo during a press conference on Feb. 2. (Photo: Dili archdiocese)

Published: February 06, 2023 06:26 AM GMT
Updated: February 06, 2023 07:47 AM GMT

The Catholic Church in Timor-Leste will assist to ensure upcoming parliamentary elections are peaceful after previous polls were marred by violence, says the country’s top Catholic leader.

The Timorese Bishops' Conference (CET) will work with the National Election Commission (CNE) "in promoting peace and stability during the election period," said Cardinal Virgílio do Carmo da Silva of Dili.

“Together with CNE [the Church] will help create a good environment for the upcoming parliamentary elections,” he told a press conference with CNE chairman Jose Belo on Feb. 2 in the capital Dili.

He said, although other steps would be formulated later, one that had been planned was to develop various civic education activities and field election monitoring teams throughout the country.

This, he said, would be carried out under the coordination of Dili archdiocese's Commission for Justice and Peace.

The country’s first cardinal said the Church would also offer special prayers for peace in all parishes during the campaign, as well as days before and during the election.

CNE’s Belo said he was grateful for the Church's support and said that all Timorese really needed to "work together to develop the country."

The election for the 65-seat parliament will be held in May, but the date is still awaiting confirmation from President Jose Ramos-Horta. He is currently hearing the opinions of political parties, before announcing the date in the coming weeks.

Timor-Leste has a dark history of political conflicts, a result of ongoing tensions between former freedom fighters who battled for the tiny nation’s independence from Indonesia.

The long-running political rivalry between Xanana Gusmao of The National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) and Mari Alkatiri of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor Party (Fretilin) has triggered a political stalemate and acts of violence.

In May 2018, the country went to the polls again just 10 months after an election on July 23, 2017.

It occurred after the minority government of Alkatiri's Fretilin, which narrowly bagged most votes, but not an outright majority, failed to secure enough support over eight months to pass any legislation including a budget.

The campaign leading up to the election was also marred by violence.

Supporters of Fretilin threw rocks at members of the opposition coalition AMP in Viqueque and Baucau. In the latter incident, a 3-year-old child was hospitalized.

On the other day, Fretilin supporters attacked AMP followers in Viqueque, leaving two trucks damaged and 18 AMP supporters injured.

In 2006, political violence left five people dead, about 100 buildings destroyed, and forced an estimated 21,000 residents to flee Dili.

Political analyst Camilo Ximenes from the National University of Timor-Leste told UCA News on Feb. 3 that he doubts this year's elections will be peaceful given the ineffective communication between political party leaders, which impacts grassroots communities.

"Therefore, it is very likely that there will violence like in the previous elections," he said, adding that Gusmao and Alkatiri were still bitter rivals and would likely argue with each other during the campaign.

He hoped that the Catholic Church plays an even bigger role in trying to ensure safe elections, given that the country's 1.4 million population is predominantly Catholic.

"The Church in particular can also be involved in dealing with problems that may arise both during and after the election," he said.

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