East Timor, The Catholic Church in
EAST TIMOR, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Also known as Timor Lorosae, East Timor lies in the Lesser Sunda Islands in the Indonesian archipelago, between 8 and 10 degrees eastern longitude and between 123 and 127 degrees northern latitude, 375 km south of the equator, to the north of australia and west of Papua New Guinea.
The Portuguese arrived in Timor sometime between 1512 and 1522. They officially annexed the area as a Portuguese territory with the appointment of a governor for Timor and Solor in 1702. During this period there were frequent and sometimes violent territorial disputes with the Dutch, who also claimed portions of the islands. From 1702 Portugal administered the area from Goa in India and toward the end of the 19th century from Macau in China. Portugal and the Netherlands established the boundary between their respective territories in 1859. In 1896 Portuguese-controlled East Timor received the status of an autonomous district and in 1909 became a Portuguese overseas province with its own governor and with financial and administrative autonomy.
With the departure of the Dutch from their colonial possessions in Southeast Asia, Dutch Timor became part of Indonesia and was renamed West Timor. East Timor remained under Portuguese control until 1975. After the Portuguese withdrew, Indonesia annexed and administered the territory from 1975 to 1999. The local population voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a 1999 referendum. Shortly after, Indonesian-backed militias went on a rampage, killing clergy, religious and innocent civilians, destroying the territory's infrastructure and forcibly displacing the local populace. The United Nations intervened, sending peacekeepers and establishing the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) with the objective of assisting the East Timorese to full nationhood.
The first known missioner in East Timor was the Dominican Antonio Taveira, who came from the neighboring island of Flores and baptized some 5,000 Timorese, probably in Lifao, Oe-cusse, shortly before 1556. He and his confreres sought to convert the local chieftains, whose subjects might then also enter the Church. The converted rulers became vassals of Portugal, obliged to pay tribute and supply soldiers during wartime. With the arrival of 20 new missioners in 1641, pastoral work on the coast became more routine. In the 17th century the mission was controlled by the "black Portuguese," or Topass, i.e., the royal mestizo families of da Costa and d'Ornay. Only in 1702 was a permanent mission centre established in Timor, at Lifao, which was transferred to Dili in 1769. A minor seminary was established in Oe-cusse in 1734. With the Dutch conquest of Portuguese Malacca in 1641, King John V ordered the Portuguese bishop of Malacca to reside in Timor.
The Timor mission was almost totally neglected during the 18th century. Unrest caused the Portuguese to
withdraw in 1729, only returning in 1748. In 1754 there were ten Dominicans on Timor and according to contemporary records, Timor had some 50 churches in 1780. From 1811 to 1824 there remained just a single friar, and for the following three years no resident priest at all. During this time Dominicans from Dili also had responsibility for Christians on the neighbouring islands of Flores and Solor. The Dominicans retained some political and commercial power until early in the 19th century. This arrangement caused friction with the lay officials and led to a virtual identification of ecclesial and colonial authority in the eyes of the Timorese.
The anticlericalism of the liberal politicians in Portugal gravely injured the mission during the 19th century. Portugal decreed the expulsion of religious orders in 1834 and the Dominicans departed. Four years later Dili was transferred to Goa from where diocesan clergy arrived. A report (c. 1850) speaks of polygamy being the norm and churches empty and unkempt. The situation improved after 1874 when Timor was transferred to Macau, and 11 secular priests arrived. Three years later the first parishes were established. In 1898 four Jesuits arrived and opened a college and meteorological observatory. By 1900 there were 16 schools for boys and four for girls. In 1910 Portugal again expelled religious and restricted the activities of the secular priests, whose numbers declined from 22 in 1910 to ten in 1924. The Salesians (SDB) opened a technical school in 1927 at Fatumaca, near Bacau. The SDB soon became the largest religious congregation in the territory. In 1930 there were 18,984 Catholics and 958 catechumens. A minor seminary was opened in 1936 at Saibada which, in 1954, was transferred to Dare, where it is today. The graduates continued their higher studies in Macau or Portugal. In 1940 Dili was separated from Macau and established as a diocese in its own right.
Japanese occupation during the Pacific War (1942-45) was traumatic. A reinforcement of 400 Australian troops arrived in December 1941, and this small Australian force squared off against 21,000 Japanese with the support of the Timorese. In response, the Japanese forces sacked Dili and ravaged the countryside. Some 40,000 Timorese died through bombardment and starvation. Three priests were assassinated by the Japanese, six fled to the mountains with their people while ten escaped to Australia. In 1946 the Portuguese returned to East Timor and reasserted their control.
Until the end of the 1960s the majority of the East Timorese, then numbering about 560,000, still clung to their traditional religion. Most of the 5,300 Chinese traders were Buddhists, with just 490 Catholics among them. There were also only 380 Muslim traders and a mere 100 Protestants in the capital at Dili. Catholics totalled 113,500, or approximately 20 percent of the population. They included most land owners and officials, for whom baptism became the avenue for advancement under the Portuguese. There were 44 clergy of whom 30 were diocesan, nine Salesian (SDB) and five Jesuit (SJ). Just seven were indigenous Timorese. Sisters numbered 37 with just six Timorese; there were 12 Brothers. There were three secondary and 41 primary schools. This stable situation was violently disrupted when Indonesia invaded in December 1975.
A bloodless, left-wing coup by the Portuguese army on April 25, 1974, ended the 48-year dictatorship in Lisbon and led to a rapid process of decolonization for East Timor. Civil fighting broke out in August 1975, instigated by Indonesian intelligence operatives under "Operation Komodo." On Dec. 7, 1975, with the support of the United States, Britain and Australia, Indonesia invaded East Timor and formally annexed the territory in July 1976. The brutality and greed of the occupying force led to strong resistance by the Timorese. Through aerial bombardment and a war-related famine, over a third of the population—perhaps as many as 40 percent—perished in two major assaults in 1976 and 1979. The population decreased from over 700,000 to approximately 540,000. This traumatic genocide went virtually unreported in the outside world. Almost 90 percent of livestock belonging to the indigenous community were wiped out.
Martinho da Costa Lopes, apostolic administrator of Dili from 1978 to 1983, became the voice of the voice-less,
but, after condemning atrocities, was removed from office by the Vatican under Indonesian pressure. The Salesian Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo (b. 1948) was appointed his successor in 1983 and ordained bishop in 1988. Within months of his appointment, Bishop Belo himself began condemning Indonesian military atrocities, becoming the one credible voice courageously speaking the truth from within the territory. He maintained that only by acknowledging the authentic ethnic, cultural and religious identity of the Timorese could their human dignity be restored. For 16 years Bishop Belo walked a tightrope between voicing the aspirations of the people and keeping in contact with the occupying forces. Meanwhile from Australia and New York, Jose Ramos-Horta led the campaign for an independent Timorese state. The surreptitiously filmed massacre of Nov. 12, 1991—when 200 to 300 unarmed mourners of the 18-year-old student, Sebastiao Gomes Rangel were gunned down and bayoneted in cold blood at Santa Cruz Cemetery—shocked the world and led to mounting international pressure on the Indonesian authorities. In defiance of worldwide condemnation, the Special Forces Command (Kopassus) under General Prabowo Subianto, Soeharto's son-in-law, instigated further religious conflict in 1995. On Oct 11, 1996, Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta received the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of their courageous efforts.
Throughout this period of turmoil, religious congregations came from Indonesia to complement the longstanding Jesuits and Salesians, including the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) in 1980, the Franciscans (OFM), and diocesan Sisters from Larantuka (PRR) and Ende (CIY) in Flores. The Church was the one bulwark that defended the dignity and rights of the people. Unsurprisingly, the Church grew rapidly to encompass 36 percent of the population by 1985 and 83 percent of the diocese of Dili and 89 percent of the diocese of Bacau by 1999. Meanwhile Protestants grew to 12 percent, while a majority of the approximately 100,000 migrants from Indonesia were Muslim. A training college for teachers of religious education was opened in Bacau in 1984. In Dili a Pastoral Institute was entrusted to the SVD in 1987. By 1996 there were 30 parishes. In November 1996 East Timor was divided into two dioceses; Dili which remained under Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo while Bishop Basilio Do Nascimenito was ordained for the new Diocese of Bacau.
The monetary crisis in Southeast Asia in 1997 and the toppling of Soeharto after 32 years of dictatorship the following year broke Indonesia's hold on East Timor. Xanana Gusmao, poet, intellectual, and the Timorese resistance leader, who had been imprisoned in Cipinang Prison, Jakarta, since 1992, was released to house arrest. In May 1999 agreement was reached with Portugal to hold a referendum under United Nations auspices at the end of August. With virtually no preparation and no withdrawal of the occupying forces, a catastrophe was inevitable. Repeated warnings by Bishop Belo went unheeded. Despite months of intimidation and terrorism by Indonesian trained militia gangs and strategic massacres, the most brutal of which was that at Liquica on April 6, 1999, an overwhelming 78 percent of registered voters chose independence. The result was announced on Sept. 5,1999. That same evening, Indonesian army personnel, together with the militia thugs they had trained, ravaged the country. Virtually every town and village was set on fire, including the harvest in the fields. Eyewitnesses fleeing the violence reported wholesale massacres by marauding militias, including the cold-blooded slaughter on Sept. 6, 1999, of some 100 Timorese who sought shelter in a Catholic church in Suai and the three priests who attempted to shield them, Fr. Hilario Madeira, Fr. Francisco Tavares dos Reis, and Jesuit Fr. Tarcisius Dewanto. Many priests, nuns, religious and seminarians were executed as a reprisal for the Catholic Church's support of East Timorese independence, including the head of Caritas East Timor, Fr Francisco Barreto, killed on September 9, and Jesuit Fr. Karl Albrecht Karim Arbie, head of the Jesuit Refugee Service, killed on September 11. International condemnation of the massacres led to the deployment of a United Nations peace-keeping force. By the time of their arrival, about 60,000 East Timorese had been massacred, 150,000 were hiding in the hills, and 200,000 (about one-third of the population) had fled to Indonesian-controlled West Timor.
Devastated but free, East Timor as a new nation faced a crisis of immense proportions. Two-thirds of youngsters over 15 years of age had never been to school because schools were closed due to the 1975–78 war. A scarcity of trained teachers resulted from the fact that some 86 percent of junior high school teachers and 97 percent in senior high schools had been ethnic Indonesians who fled back to Indonesia after the 1999 referendum. In 1996 the United Nations reported that East Timor had the worst infant mortality rate of the world's 30 least developed countries, some 135 deaths per 1,000 births. At the beginning of the 21st century, this grim picture remained unchanged.
The Catholic Church continued to play an active role in reconstruction and nation building. To accommodate church growth, a third diocese at Seme was erected in 2001. The Diocese of Dili had begun to run the Timor Kmanek radio station. Missionaries returned to assist in the rebuilding of civil society and the Church, as well as preparing the people for independent nationhood.
Bibliography: c. r. boxer, Fidalgos in the Far East 1550-1770 (London 1968); The Portuguese Seaborn Empire 1415-1825 (London 1969). j. dunn, East Timor: A People Betrayed (Australia 1983). a. s. kohen, From the Place of the Dead. The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor (New York 1999). r. lennox, Fighting Spirit of East Timor. The Life of Martinho da Costa Lopes (London 2000). j. g. taylor, Indonesia's Forgotten War: The Hidden History of East Timor (London 1991); East Timor: The Price of Freedom (London 1999).
[j. m. prior]