Belo, Carlos Felipe Ximenes

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Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo

Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo (born 1948), a retired East Timorese Roman Catholic bishop, spent the entirety of his career fighting for his home country's independence from Indonesia. Along with exiled activist Jose Ramos–Horta, he received the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. While the award brought international attention to the plight of the often violent struggle for East Timorese self–rule, it also increased the hostility of Belo's opponents. Belo retired from his position as bishop in 2002, the same year East Timor achieved full independence.

Belo was born on February 3, 1948, in the village of Wailakama, the fifth of six children. At the time of his birth, East Timor was a colony of Portugal and remained so until 1974. Belo's father, Domingos Vaz Felipe, was a school teacher, but the family also worked as rice farmers. Belo's father died when his son was only three and, as a young child, Belo shepherded water buffalo, possibly to supplement his family's income. He had access to education as well, however, and attended East Timor's Roman Catholic missionary schools. In 1973, he traveled to Portugal to commence study for the priesthood, then returned for a brief period to teach at a school run by the Salesian religious order in the town of Fatumaca. He returned to Portugal in 1975 to enter the seminary and then traveled to Rome, where he attended Pontifical Salesian University. Belo was ordained a priest of the Salesian order in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1980. The following year he returned to East Timor to serve as director of Fatumaca College.

Returned to Political Turmoil

Upon his homecoming, Belo encountered a country in the midst of political turmoil. In 1950, West Timor (which, along with East Timor, is one of 3,000 Indian Ocean islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago) had been freed from Dutch rule and joined the newly created nation of Indonesia. At the time, East Timor remained a Portuguese colony. A democratic coup overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, however, and nearly all of its colonies became sovereign. With its large Roman Catholic population, the majority of East Timor favored self–rule, as opposed to annexation by Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim nation ruled by a military regime. East Timor declared its independence in 1975, although a Muslim minority wished to join the Indonesian federation. Using the Muslim interest in annexation as justification, Indonesian forces crossed into East Timor and officially annexed the country in 1976. The United Nations refused to recognize the annexation, however, continuing to regard East Timor as a Portuguese subject. A popular uprising began.

As part of the protest against annexation, an increasing number of East Timorese converted to Catholicism as a statement of political resistance to Muslim rule. The Indonesian government responded by torturing or slaughtering residents of rural communities, burning entire villages, and forcing men into the Indonesian army in an effort to suppress the revolt. As president of a Catholic university, Belo became keenly aware of the abuses taking place, although he was initially reluctant to take a stand.

Belo was named apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Dili, the East Timorese capital, in 1983, a position that made him the foremost Catholic leader in the country. Using his leverage, he extended a mediation offer to the Indonesian military, but was rejected. The Vatican could not name a bishop for East Timor, given the country's uncertain political status, so in 1988, Pope John Paul II named Belo to the esteemed position of Bishop of Lorium, Italy. By elevating Belo to such a prominent post, the Pope implicitly demonstrated his support for East Timorese sovereignty.

Entered Fight for Independence

Belo lent his influence to the resistance, joined most visibly by Jose Ramos–Horta, a leader of the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (known as Fretilin) living in exile in Australia. The bishop began using his sermons to condemn Indonesian military abuses, as well as aiding dissidents and encouraging activities that expressed East Timorese culture. Indonesian forces continued to spread violence and terror, however. By some estimates, nearly one–third of East Timor's 650,000 residents ultimately perished during the struggle.

Aside from human rights groups, the international community largely failed to acknowledge the struggle in East Timor. Documentation of the situation proved difficult as Indonesian officials routinely blocked entry into or exit from East Timor. Journalists who were able to visit the country did so with close Indonesian supervision, interviews with Belo were not permitted, and those who attempted to alert the press to abuses were silenced. Belo set about drawing attention to his country's dire plight. In 1989 he sent a letter to then–Secretary–General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar, requesting assistance. Belo did not receive a reply until 1994, after General Boutros–Boutros Ghali assumed Perez de Cuellar's post.

The region drew increased attention in 1991, however, for tragic reasons. In November of that year, the Indonesian army fired on a crowd of mostly East Timorese teenagers holding a peaceful protest at the Santa Cruz cemetery near Belo's home, and 271 unarmed protestors were killed. Belo sheltered several of the fleeing survivors before escorting them home, after which many of them disappeared. In a 1994 interview with New Statesman & Society, Belo recalled visiting the hospital after the massacre and seeing hundreds of wounded protestors. When he returned the next day, only 90 remained, and he was told that the rest were slaughtered between the hours of two and three in the morning when the lights of the city were suddenly shut off. "No one can speak. No one can demonstrate. People disappear," Belo told the magazine's John Pilger. "You must understand that we are undergoing a second colonization. If I am asked for one description, I would say we live as if under the old soviet regime. For the ordinary people, there is no freedom, only a continuing nightmare." A 1992 documentary on British television featured first–hand footage of the massacre which was ultimately broadcast worldwide.

Belo criticized foreign governments who downplayed the number massacred at Santa Cruz. "They are lying about what has happened to us," he told New Statesman & Society. "Their lies and hypocrisy in the cause of economic interests. We ask the people of the world to understand this, and not to forget that we are here, struggling for life every day." In the same interview, Belo said he had attempted to alert the world to previous instances of violence: "There were many massacres before that, many of them, and I spoke about them. But there was no international interest, no documentary film; no one listened." Working with Ramos–Horta, Belo began to smuggle witnesses to the atrocities to Switzerland to escape retribution. The pair also testified about the Santa Cruz massacre to the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

Awarded Nobel Prize

Belo's activities and increasing outspokenness on behalf of the East Timorese put him at great risk. He came under strict government surveillance, with his phone lines tapped and requests for travel visas routinely denied. He confided to New Statesman & Society that he had defied two assassination attempts, in 1989 and 1991. Eventually, the struggle in East Timor drew the attention of the greater international community, and Belo and Ramos–Horta were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and 1995. They received the prize in 1996, and the award was largely regarded as a political statement intended to bolster Belo's mission. "At the risk of his own life, he has tried to protect his people from infringements by those in power," the committee observed, according to a 1996 article in The International Herald–Tribune. "In his efforts to create a just settlement based on his people's right to self–determination, he has been a constant spokesman for nonviolence and dialogue with the Indonesian authorities."

After Indonesian officials condemned the award, 1,000 students marched in the streets to show their support for Belo. International pressure appeared to force some concessions to the East Timorese. The Indonesian government established a human rights commission to investigate charges of its government's abuses in East Timor, and two members of the military were court–martialed and tried for murder, although they received only light sentences. Indonesia also agreed to U.N.–mediated negotiations with Portugal. But the government stopped short of allowing a referendum on independence. Belo vowed continued resistance. "Then what does it want? That the 700,000 East Timorese just bow their heads?" he asked, referring to Indonesia, as quoted in an interview with the Associated Press. "Don't think that all Timorese people have accepted the integration and that everything is OK. It has not been for the past 20 years, and may not be for the next 20 years." In 1997, Belo escaped another attempt on his life when his supporters beat the would–be assassin to death.

Independence Achieved, and Violence Erupted

The political climate changed in 1998, when General Suharto resigned amid economic instability in Indonesia. His successor, B.J. Habibie, agreed to an election to decide East Timor's fate. On August 30, 1999, the residents of East Timor voted in favor of full independence. The election results sparked a riot, with pro–Indonesian militia groups from West Timor enacting a wave of violence. Thousands of East Timorese were forced across the border, and Belo's house in Dili was fired upon, forcing him to flee while it burned to the ground. Belo was eventually evacuated to Darwin, Australia. Two weeks after the election, as violence continued to rage, Indonesian officials asked the U.N. to send a peacekeeping force to East Timor. The U.N. arrived and Belo returned in October 1999, declaring his nation's torched capital, according to The Independent of London, "worse than hell." On October 31, just after the last Indonesian tank left the country and along the same road, Belo led a religious procession concluding in a speech urging peace.

Following nearly three years of U.N. peacekeeping efforts and government reorganization, East Timor celebrated its status as an independent nation on May 20, 2002, with former rebel commander and political prisoner Xanana Gusmao taking the post of president. The 54–year–old Belo announced his resignation as bishop in December of that year, citing ill health. Pope John Paul II had refused to accept several previous attempts by Belo to resign. East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri expressed hope that Belo would remain active in East Timorese politics. "I hope that, even removed from his diocese, he can still help us consolidate peace and stability with his opinions and criticisms," she was quoted as saying in the National Catholic Reporter.

Belo retired to Portugal, and at least one observer theorized that the change that had overcome East Timor posed some difficulties for the former bishop. "[H]e was there in East Timor day in and day out throughout all those years, and yet when the liberation came . . . more of the glory went to those who'd been leaders overseas, and I think that's an understandable thing, but the more substantive point is that with the arrival of the U.N. of course, came what you might call modernism in all its force, and overnight," observed Jesuit priest, author, and lawyer Frank Brennan on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Religion Report. "And I think that left him a little beleaguered, he was left somewhat adrift in wondering what is the role of the church in a developing East Timorese society."

Belo raised the possibility of re–entering East Timorese political life in April 2004, however, when he expressed interest in seeking the presidency. Gusmao announced in March 2004 that he would not seek reelection and the National Catholic Reporter reported that Belo said he would consider running for Gusmao's seat. According to the Reporter, a 2003 poll found that more than 80 percent of the East Timorese population would like to see Belo run.


Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Book IV, Gale Group, 2000.


America, September 18, 1999.

Independent (London), October 7, 1999.

International Herald–Tribune, October 12, 1996.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 1996; December 13, 2002; April 9, 2004.

New Statesman & Society, July 15, 1994.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 1996.

Seattle Post–Intelligencer, December 11, 1996.

Seattle Times, January 17, 1997.


Newshour, Public Broadcasting Corporation, (November 24, 2004).

The Religion Report, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, (November 24, 2004).

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