BY JOANNE KUNIANSKY
SYDNEY - Some 1,300 East Timorese refugees are currently being held in detention centers while they seek asylum here. Less than 20 have been released, pending the outcome of their asylum applications. In October the Australian government recommended to the Refugee Review Tribunal that refugee status be denied on the grounds that they are Portuguese citizens. East Timor was formerly a Portuguese colony.
Challenging government policy, Sister Mary Cresp, Congregational leader of the Sisters of St. Joseph, announced at a news conference November 5 that the Christian Sanctuary Network of Australia will offer sanctuary to East Timorese refugees if they are threatened with deportation.
The sanctuary network includes Catholic churches and other religious institutions in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and Western Australia.
Sister Cresp said, "In making this statement we take a clear stance against the government's recommendation ....these East Timorese people have fled a genocide which our federal government has done little to prevent at diplomatic, economic, and military levels."
The sanctuary announcement was made in the month leading up to protest actions to support East Timor's independence. Mobilizations will be held throughout Australia on the anniversaries of the November 12, 1991, Dili massacre of 200 East Timorese by Indonesian troops; and of the December 7, 1975, Indonesian invasion of East Timor.
The Indonesian army, using 30,000 soldiers, invaded East Timor in December 1975 after receiving a green light by Canberra and Washington. More than 200,000 Timorese out of a population of 700,000 have died since due to the occupation.
The government of Indonesia currently stations 5,000 troops in East Timor. In September and October, anti- Indonesian riots in Dili were met with a fierce crackdown by the occupiers. Indonesian troops rounded up, imprisoned, and tortured hundreds of youth.
Two recent refugees from East Timor, Filipe and Jacob da Silva, attended the November 5 press conference.
Fernanda Soares, representing the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT), and Harold Moucho, representing the Revolutionary Front for the Independence of East Timor (FRETILIN), read a joint statement thanking the church for the offer.
They explained that 98 percent of the Timorese people are Catholic and that churches in East Timor often serve as sanctuaries from repression. In fact, they pointed out that the Dili massacre took place at the funeral of Sebastiao Rangel, who was killed by Indonesian soldiers as he sought refuge in the sanctuary of the Motael Church in Dili. Indonesian troops opened fire on the funeral procession killing over 200.
Moucho said that the "stance of the church will set a precedent in Australia giving others strength to stand up to the Australian government's position. The stance of the church will inspire the Timorese to continue their resistance."
Joanne Kuniansky is a member of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.
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