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Thursday, September 9, 1999 Published at 16:33 GMT 17:33 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Timor militias 'targeting Catholics'

Catholics around the world have gathered to pray for the East Timorese

Anti-independence militias in East Timor are targeting the Roman Catholic community, according to reports from the Vatican.

The Jesuit refugee service has confirmed that three priests were among about 100 East Timorese Catholics killed when their church was set on fire in the southern town of Suai.

The Vatican's missionary news service, Fides, said there were reports that 15 priests had been killed in the capital, Dili, and in Baucau, where a group of nuns had also died.

[ image: Bishop Carlos Belo's home was attacked by the militias]
Bishop Carlos Belo's home was attacked by the militias
The Roman Catholic charity group, Caritas, is trying to confirm reports that the director of its East Timor operations has been killed by militiamen in Dare.

Caritas said most of its 40 local workers had been murdered.

There were two Catholic bishops resident in East Timor. Bishop Carlos Belo, a Nobel peace prize winner, was evacuated to Australia and is now on his way to Portugal. He is expected in Rome to report in person to the Pope next week.

The Bishop of Baucau, Monsignor Basilio Do Nascimento, has been injured by the militias but had escaped into the mountains.

However, reports from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, say that he is now being protected at the police station in Baucau - although there are suggestions he might have been arrested.

About 80% of the population of East Timor is Roman Catholic. Thousands of people had turned to the church for sanctuary from the violence, but there are growing fears that they are now being singled out.

[ image: Basilio Do Nascimento: Injured and in hiding]
Basilio Do Nascimento: Injured and in hiding
The BBC's Rome correspondent says there was always a religious dimension to the territory's attempt to secede from Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population.

The Vatican's Foreign Minister, Archbishop Tauran, has called for the urgent creation of an international peacekeeping force to be sent to East Timor.

Newspapers are also demanding action. "Violence by armed gangs is being unleashed against the Catholic community and its pastors," the Vatican daily Osservatore Romano said on Thursday.

And Fides accused the Indonesian army of "trying to distance the church from the people".

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