Subject: East Timor's Muslim minority assured of safe haven

East Timor's Muslim minority assured of safe haven

DILI, East Timor, Dec 9 (AFP) - A small group of Muslims in this majority Roman Catholic territory will begin the fasting month of Ramadan on Thursday night after independence leader Xanana Gusmao said they were welcome to stay.

Gusmao signed the guest book at the Annur mosque on Wednesday when he met with the group of about 200 Muslims, said Imam Hadji Amirrudin, a prayer leader at the mosque.

The people wanted to remain here in East Timor and there was a question about their citizenship.

"Xanana's reply was that it will depend on the immigration laws," said Ines Almeida, a spokesman for Gusmao.

"He invited them to stay," she said.

Unlike other Indonesians who fled East Timor in the last months of their rule here, the small Islamic community has vowed to remain despite some threats.

"'Why don't you go home?' They were told," said Imam Shahid, 29, another prayer leader.

But Shahid is already home.

He said he was born in the East Timor town of Viqueque.

He and the others have been living in the mosque since they, like East Timorese, became victims of the militia violence backed by Indonesian armed forces that destroyed this city, East Timor's capital, in September.

They lived in the relatively well off airport district of Delta Comoro, where houses were burned and damaged just as they were everywhere else.

"We've already been here a long time. We'll fix our houses. If we leave here, we start from nothing," said Shahid.

The Annur mosque, in Dili's west central part, is the largest and the oldest in East Timor, which is on its way to becoming a new country after voting in August to split from Jakarta during a UN-administered ballot.

"This is about 500 years old," said Mohammad Jamil, 28.

He said Arab traders reached East Timor even before the Portuguese who colonized the area for hundreds of years before Indonesia invaded in 1975.

Almost all the people living at the Annur mosque are originally from various parts of Indonesia and have been in East Timor for several years.

"We want to stay here," said prayer leader Amirrudin, a native of West Java.

"Some local people don't like us here. But we gave them an explanation that our community is not interested in politics. We would like to develop and join together with you," said Jamil, who moved here eight months ago from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where he worked at a Hilton hotel.

He said his uncle told him East Timor would be a good place to do business.

Jamil, whose son was born in East Timor in July, ran a coffee wholesale business.

Amirrudin operated a restaurant in Dili.

Jose Ramos-Horta, another independence leader, met the Muslim community shortly after he returned to East Timor earlier this month.

The Catholic Bishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Carlos Ximenes Felipe Belo also recently visited the mosque.

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