Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin's 2015 signing of a concordat with the government of Catholic-majority Timor-Leste in Dili enshrined a close funding relationship between church and state. But now, devout Catholic Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak
, part of the Alliance for Progress and Change elected on May 10, plans to use it as a basis to shake up long-standing financial support for parishes. "My government will no longer give funding to the parish churches because we have allocated a specific budget for the church," Taur Matan Ruak told parliament. "The church should resolve its own problems." He noted that when the Catholic Church receives government money, other denominations and faiths argue that they should also be given financial support. For the past decade, funds of between US$1.5 million and US$2 million each year were dispersed to the half-island nation's two dioceses, with millions more made available to parishes and religious orders for specific projects.
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However, the concordat has changed all that in a country formerly under harsh Indonesian rule that is 90 percent Catholic. There is confusion over division of financial allocation responsibilities between elected officials, the church and bureaucrats running the Civil Society Support Fund within the Prime Minister's Office. This fund, established in 2008, has previously been primarily responsible for supervising government allocations to the Catholic Church. The central issue now is how much money the church will be given out of the US$15 million the Timor-Leste government agreed to provide under the concordat and what proportion of it the government will retain separate responsibility for. Church concordats date back to 1107 when a treaty was signed with King Henry I of England. The treaties became controversial under Pope Pius XI
, who completed a flurry of them in the years following World War I, including a treaty with Germany under Adolf Hitler that largely tied the Vatican's hands during World War II. Burned by the experience with Hitler and criticized as blurring the separation of church and state, concordats were signed sparingly after World War II and dropped for almost 30 years following the Second Vatican Council
. The modern version was resuscitated by Pope John Paul II with the Polish concordat in 1993 and since then they have been signed with other countries including Portugal, Slovenia and Brazil. Negotiations for a concordat with Timor-Leste took almost a decade to conclude, having begun in 2006 by the country's then president Jose Ramos Horta, and now the US$15 million a year guaranteed by the government has started to flow. In 2017, US$6 million went directly to the church, with the government hanging on to a further US$9 million that was broadly supposed to be for the funding of church building projects. There have also been ad hoc grants to the church since Timor-Leste's independence in 2002. In 2008, the prime minister's Civil Society Support Fund transferred US$1.5 million directly to the account of Baucau Diocese and another US$1.5 million was offered to Dili Diocese. At the time, the bishop of Baucau accepted the funding while the bishop of Dili asked the government to use the diocese's allocation to help people who had been internally displaced. Dili Diocese subsequently asked to use the funding to rehabilitate the Jesus Christ statue in the nation's capital as well as for other projects such as building a park and rehabilitating the Dili Cathedral church. Joaquin Freitas, head of the Civil Society Support Fund, said that in ensuing years US$1.5 million to US$2 million was given to the diocese annually. But there were also grants, such as one for US$10 million to restore churches and chapels. Freitas told ucanews.com that an extra US$2 million had been provided to respond to funding requests from parish churches and congregations. "During my 10 years working in this field, most of the state budget allocated by my office was used for the Catholic Church and some proportion used for Protestants and faiths such as Muslims and Hindus," Freitas said. "That's why the government opted for the idea that Catholic funds should go through the bishops' conference to resolve all their needs. "In that time, we have built almost 20 main Catholic churches and many more Catholic chapels in the country, costing us millions of dollars." But this year there are unresolved funding issues related to the 2015 concordat agreement. So far, the government has committed only US$5 million to be transferred to the bishops' conference in a deal signed in the dying days of the previous government of Mari Alkatiri, despite a budget for the year not having been passed. The money has yet to be transferred due to the change of government and Freitas said he had been told the government may transfer only US$3 million. Father Crispin Julio Belo, a spokesman for the bishops' conference, said that the 2018 total funding of US$15 million should be transferred directly into the bishops' conference account. However, the government would not comment on how it plans to split this amount and it could be facing a fight with the Catholic Church hierarchy on the issue. Father Belo accepted that various church projects, mainly involving the building of infrastructure which started in 2015 and 2016, should remain the responsibility, separate to the concordat, of the Civil Society Support Fund.