Subject: AFP: East Timorese pray that independence will bring peace

Agence France Presse May 19, 2002

East Timorese pray that independence will bring peace


DILI, May 19

East Timorese walked to church Sunday for the last time as a people ruled by outsiders.

At sunrise every Sunday in the waterfront capital of this devoutly Catholic half-island, a sea of people walk in their best clothes, under arches of bougainvillea and oleander trees, to the dozens of churches that grace Dili.

For 24 years they prayed for freedom; on Sunday they prayed for peace and unity to accompany the independence they have finally won and which be declared at midnight (1500 GMT Sunday).

"The spirit within us has emerged, and with that spirit we can shine and stand alone," Dili's Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, a Nobel peace laureate, said in his sermon.

"We celebrate this day of independence by thanking God. If God had not been with us, we could not have achieved it. We could not have survived."

A thousand people packed the garden of Belo's seaside residence for an outdoor mass to herald the birth of their nation after a long and bloody struggle that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

At midnight East Timor's flag will rise and its 750,000 people will bid farewell to more than 400 years of foreign domination, including 32 months of United Nations stewardship, 24 years of brutal occupation by Indonesia, and four centuries of Portuguese colonial domination.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will hand over authority to parliament leader Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres, who will then proclaim independence.

It was in the sanctuary of this bishop's residence that hundreds of terrified refugees were attacked by Indonesian-army backed militiamen days after the landmark August 1999 vote for independence from Jakarta.

Several were killed here -- in the months surrounding the UN-run ballot around 1,000 independence supporters were massacred, and the already impoverished territory was ravaged as the militias unleashed an orgy of destruction.

Over the quarter century of Indonesian rule and the protracted guerrilla war against it, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese died.

In their final dawn before independence, churchgoers prayed that the bloodshed would never return.

"I prayed for peace, that's very special. There cannot be anything more special than that," said Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, Belo's co-Nobel peace prize winner, in the front row of the mass.

Next to him was Francisco Xavier do Amaral, the man who first declared East Timor's independence 26 and a half years ago and was president for nine days, until Indonesian troops invaded on December 7, 1975.

The black, red and gold flag which Amaral raised then will be raised on Sunday night as East Timor's official flag.

Former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao will then be sworn in as president, and on Monday morning the fledling government and parliament will be inaugurated.

"Let us pray that our new leaders can carry our independence with responsibility, so that we can live in peace and unity," Belo implored worshippers.

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