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Vatican official bats for martial arts groups in Timor-Leste

Government in the Catholic-majority nation banned them for six months following violence resulting in deaths, injuries

Monsignor Marco Sprizzi being welcomed by martial arts groups in Dili on Nov. 11.

Monsignor Marco Sprizzi being welcomed by martial arts groups in Dili on Nov. 11. (Photo: Supplied)

Published: November 20, 2023 11:45 AM GMT

Updated: November 20, 2023 11:54 AM GMT

A Vatican official in Timor-Leste has told the government and the Church not to exclude but embrace martial arts groups, whose activities were banned in the Catholic-majority nation following fatal incidents and violence.

“They need to be integrated, to be involved, to be included, not to be excluded, not to be thrown away, not to be marginalized,” said Monsignor Marco Sprizzi, charge d'affaires at the apostolic nunciature in the capital Dili.

On Nov. 10, the government suspended activities of martial arts groups for six months following incidents of violence in many places, which resulted in four deaths and injuries to 26 people besides damaging 21 homes and 10 vehicles.

The government suspended martial arts throughout the country following the violent incidents.

On Nov. 11, Sprizzi met with leaders of martial arts groups and asked them to shun violence.

"Martial arts are not to cause violence to others, but to control oneself, to respect others, and to instill self-discipline and self-control," he told them.

Sprizzi said he did not oppose the government's decision because violence should not be tolerated and those guilty must be held accountable.

“But this is only a provisional decision. What is most important for the government is to engage them at least in their programs," Sprizzi told UCA News on Nov. 19.

He said that many of the country's young people are being neglected and 20 percent of them are uneducated and unemployed.

Many young people have family problems and have joined martial arts groups to feel that they are important, Sprizzi said.

"They begin to consider society as an enemy because they feel rejected." 

Sprizzi said that the Church and government need to welcome them and understand their feeling and needs,

“Our task is to go outside the Church to invite them to be part of the Church community and society.”

Vatican sports teams practice taekwondo and judo.

Martial arts groups have a long history in Timor-Leste. During the military occupation by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999, many students became clandestine members of these groups and supported guerrilla fighters. The country became independent in 2021.

However, they became a challenge to the rule of law and created social disturbances, including participating in sectarian violence in 2006. The government brought in a law to regulate them and used security forces to suppress them.

Ivo Mateus Goncalves da Cruz Fernandes, a Timorese pursuing a PhD in history at the Australian National University, said he did not fully agree with the government's decision "because most of the decisions taken by the government are political."

He said the government should study to find out if the recent violent incidents were caused by martial arts groups.

"Lack of job opportunities can fuel dissatisfaction," he said.

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