The Church in East Timor: Voice of the Silenced

Author: PeaceNet


"We are dying as a people and as a nation... I ask that a referendum be held". This genuine S.O.S., appealing for a referendum on self-determination, sent to the UN Secretary General by the Catholic Bishop of East Timor, comprehends the different components which have made up the Timorese people's recent history:

1. the Indonesian invasion and genocide practiced since 1975,

2. the struggle of a people that still resists beyond what would seem to be humanly possible,

3. the role of a Church, through which this people seeks to safeguard and maintain its identity,

4. and, finally, the silence and abandonment by the international community.

An approach to the history of East Timor from the main reactions and attitudes of the Catholic Church will give a restricted, but not confined overview because, given the circumstances, the Church has had to overstep the bounds of a strictly religious domain to provide a voice for a people that has been silenced.


History tells us that the first Europeans to settle on the island of Timor in 1560 were Catholic priests of the Dominican Order, who had arrived aboard Portuguese sailing ships at the time of the Discoveries. Four centuries later, East Timor was a Portuguese colony, barely "colonised" by a distant metropolis with insufficient resources. The Timorese had largely held on to their customs and traditional way of life. Portuguese influence was exerted mainly through the Catholic Church, especially in the realm of education. However, after 400 years of Portuguese presence, and in spite of the privileges enjoyed by Catholicism as the state religion, only 30% of Timorese had embraced the Catholic faith.

When the dictatorship fell in Portugal in 1974, the new regime decided to give the colonies their independence. It soon became apparent that Indonesia did not relish the emergence of an independent nation within its area of influence. A missionary tells how, quite some time before Indonesia's invasion, the Vatican's representative in Jakarta had assured the Portuguese Bishop of East Timor that "the Church has nothing to fear from integration with Indonesia", and the Bishop had relayed this message to his clergy. The infighting among the Timorese, and the abdication of the Portuguese authorities, who were completely absorbed by the democratisation process in their own country, were to give Indonesia a pretext to invade.


Although some sources report that General Murdani, a Catholic and mastermind behind the invasion, had issued orders to spare the Church, it was in fact violently hit. The Dili seminary was bombed, schools were burned down, numerous churches and religious buildings were plundered. From the very beginning, the fate of the Catholic Church in Timor was bound to the fate of the people. Timor was isolated from the rest of the world; the first letter from a missionary after the invasion only reached its destination in Portugal two years later, when the Portuguese Bishop was substituted as head of the diocese by the oldest Timorese priest, Monsignor da Costa Lopes.


In response to an invitation to take part in a meeting of religious superiors from Indonesia, in 1981 the clergy of East Timor wrote in a collective document: "Our relations with the universal Church were suddenly curtailed. We are the clergy of East Timor who, together with our people, have been thrown into a vacuum and alienated for 6 years, so we have become the silent Church of East Timor". The clergy of Timor realised the implications of the invitation: "we are aware that we are being "persuaded" to set up links with the Indonesian Church, because it is the Church that is closest to us, and the one the government and army have authorised to maintain a closer relationship with us". However, they accepted the invitation to break the silence and expose the consequences of the years of Indonesian occupation: "the tragedy of the people of East Timor, which has lasted for the past six years, has resulted in over 200,000 victims".

In particular, they expressed their dismay at the silence of the other Churches: "we are amazed by the silence which appears to condone the fact that we are dying betrayed", and told the Indonesian religious superiors, who seemed to wholeheartedly embrace the views of their Government, that "We must all understand that the Indonesian national army, that liberated Indonesia from colonial power in such an extraordinary way, will never liberate the people of East Timor from its colonial state ... the will of the people of East Timor is to have the right to choose its own destiny, and not the large-scale massacres which have been perpetrated by its neighbours".

To anyone who might accuse the Timorese clergy of meddling in political affairs, they replied: "Only the Church which practices the faith of its people and is capable of expressing what its people feels, lives and suffers is a living Church.". (1)

That same year, before 12,000 Timorese gathered for a religious ceremony, Monsignor da Costa Lopes denounced the crimes of the Indonesian army, particularly the massacre of 500 women and children a few weeks before, at the foot of Mount Santo Antonio. Reprimanded by the military commander, he replied: "I feel an irrepressible need to tell the whole world about the genocide being practiced in Timor so that, when we die, at least the world will know we died standing". (2)

In 1982, a mission from the Ecumenical Council of Churches visited Timor: "The leader of the Catholic Church in Dili did not hesitate to speak out in the presence of the security officials and dared criticise the negative aspects of Indonesian Government policy, concluding that the problem of East Timor is not a military problem but a political and humanitarian one and, consequently, cannot be resolved by the use of guns", read their subsequent report.

Monsignor da Costa Lopes also addressed an appeal to Caritas in Australia to help his people, who were dying of starvation in the fields in which they had been regrouped by the armed forces. The Indonesian authorities called him a liar, and tried to get the Vatican to dismiss him, while not ignoring other more radical methods: "I received reports that the Indonesians intended to kill me. As they did not wish to be implicated in such a murder, they paid some Timorese to do it, but they came to tell me", recalled Monsignor da Costa Lopes, once he was in exile.


In May 1983, the Apostolic Nuncio in Jakarta arrived in Dili to announce the substitution of Monsignor da Costa Lopes by Monsignor Ximenes Belo.

A group of priests in the diocese wrote "to the episcopal conferences and to the free world" to express their "disappointment and deep hurt on learning that members of the Indonesian Catholic Church had joined in the chorus of campaigns, within and outside Indonesia, against their prelate ... when his is the only voice raised in defence of a people condemned to silence". (3)

The new head of the diocese was a 32-year-old Salesian priest, who had recently returned to Timor after leaving before the invasion to study in Europe. He had not, therefore, experienced life under the first eight years of occupation, and none of his colleagues or teachers remembered ever hearing him mention the drama of his people. The circumstances surrounding his arrival to the leadership of the diocese contributed to the idea that he had been chosen to adopt different attitudes to those of his predecessor, and his appointment was contested by the clergy as a whole. Just as in the case of Monsignor da Costa Lopes, the Vatican did not appoint Monsignor Belo a "Bishop", but just "Apostolic Administrator", which meant less institutional clout and less security.

Soon after his appointment, the Indonesian Episcopal Conference sent a letter of solidarity to the new leader of the diocese. The Indonesian Bishops deplored the suffering of the Timorese people, but avoided reference to the causes of the suffering. The most expressive, or least evasive, sentence read: "we cannot refuse to face up to what is taking place in the midst of the people, especially those events which determine the well being or misery of the masses affected by cruel oppression". (4) Although the only known version of this was in English (it was distributed at an international meeting of Catholic organisations which give aid to the Church of Indonesia), and there is no knowledge of it ever having been made public in Indonesia, the Archbishop of Jakarta criticised the expression "cruel oppression" which, he said, was the result of a mis-translation.

Monsignor Belo quickly showed signs of wanting to defend the rights of his people. From the time of the Indonesian invasion, the number of Catholics rapidly increased from 30% of the population in 1975 to 90% at present. Unintentionally, the Indonesians stimulated this growth in two ways:

1. the Indonesian State forces people to belong to one of the five big monotheistic religions,

2. the Timorese chose Catholicism, as an affirmation of their singularity.

"It is the generalised determination of a people seeking to defend its identity through us" (5), replied Monsignor Belo, when a journalist questioned him about the large scale conversions.

The Church, and particularly the priests of Timorese origin, have lived up to this show of confidence: "We do not adopt political positions, but the Church of East Timor is prepared and determined to defend fundamental human rights, especially the right of the Timorese people to exist as a people with its own identity and culture", stated the new Apostolic Administrator in the same interview.

In late 1984, Ximenes Belo wrote to the French Justice and Peace Commission: "The only solution to the East Timor conflict is a political and diplomatic one, which must include, above all else, respect for a people's right to self-determination". (6)

These attitudes brought the head of the diocese closer to his clergy. They jointly prepared a document, dated 1 January 1985: "It is with anguish that the Church is witnessing the events that are slowly leading to the ethnic, cultural and religious extinction of the identity of the people of East Timor". This text goes on to detail some of the negative aspects of Indonesian presence: "successive clean-up operations, systematically and periodically carried out by the Indonesian army ... reprisal killings by shooting adult and young men ... waves of arrests ... recruitment of the population for military operations ... ineffective health care ... concentration of the population in camps in inhuman conditions ... obligatory night guard duties and forced labour, without taking into account the needs of those affected ... the occupation by Indonesians of key positions and marginalisation of the Timorese ...". (7) When the document was made public by the Washington Post, Indonesian diplomacy denied its authenticity. The Apostolic Nuncio in Jakarta also declared he had received a telegram in which Monsignor Belo denied having "written" the document. What manner of pressure must have been applied to obtain this apparent denial?


Monsignor Belo went to Rome where, more than likely, more pressure was brought to bear. When he returned, the Timorese noticed a change in his attitude: the head of the diocese was emphasising "realism", a concept generally accepted outside Timor, that Indonesia is too big and strong for any resistance to its intentions.

"I only hope that the Apostolic Administrator and the clergy do not disillusion the people, and know how to be unyielding" (8), wrote a Timorese cleric. A layman added: "if the priests desert the fight, we will carry on to the last drop of blood in our bodies". (9)

Resistance leader Xanana Gusmao himself expressed his own disquiet in a letter to a priest: "our fight would be made extremely difficult if we did not have the indispensable support which, until now, the Church of East Timor has given and guaranteed the resistance". (10)

It seemed that the integration of the diocese of Dili in the Indonesian Episcopal Conference would be a major step towards facilitating political integration. The Chairman of the governmental Golkar party, Mr. Sudharmono, visited East Timor and invited himself to the inaugural ceremony of an Our Lady grotto. On that occasion he promised Monsignor Belo that a new cathedral would be built in Dili if the diocese were to agree to integrate with the Indonesian Bishops' Conference. The Director of the Centre for Indonesian Studies in Jakarta, Yusuf Wanandi, promised that new Salesian missionaries would be allowed to enter, on the same condition. A journalist, covering Sudharmono's visit to Timor, wrote that religious integration could be "the last stage in the overall integration process of East Timor, which has lasted for 10 years". (11)

As these attempts to achieve their objective were not finding favour with the Church of Timor, the Indonesians turned their sights to the Vatican. In 1987, a Catholic youth organisation asked "the Holy Father to take the steps necessary for union with our brothers of East Timor...", without any attempt to disguise the political intention of its request: "for integration in the Republic of Indonesia". (12)

On 25 April 1986, Ximenes Belo met secretly with Xanana Gusmao, and relayed a proposal from the Vatican to the resistance leader: the Vatican was prepared to use its influence to secure the safe- conduct and departure from the country of the guerrillas, if they were to give up their fight. Xanana replied that the guerrillas were not fighting for themselves, and asked if the chance to leave the country extended to all Timorese. A priest said that Monsignor Belo was satisfied with this response. There were other attempts along the same lines: in 1988 Xanana expressed his regret, in a letter to Monsignor da Costa Lopes, that the Vatican: "was insisting that its Italian and Spanish collaborators, and the Apostolic Administrator, persuade us to surrender". (13)


In June 1988, Monsignor Belo was consecrated Bishop.

Believing the reports from its correspondent in Indonesia, the Catholic information agency of Asia (UCAN) announced: "the prelate of East Timor accepts integration of the territory with Indonesia". However, it is a mystery how this interpretation of what the Bishop stated was arrived at because, in fact, he had expressed quite the opposite view: "if the Vatican and the local Catholics so wished, we would certainly participate as members of the Episcopal Conference of Indonesia but, until now, the diocese of Dili has not wanted this". (14)

Ximenes Belo's appointment to Bishop seemed to give him more confidence. In December 1988 he denounced the torture which had "become normal practice in East Timor". (15) In February 1989 he wrote to the UN Secretary General : "The decolonisation process of Portuguese Timor has still not been resolved by the UN, and it should not be forgotten ... I ask that the Secretary General initiate in Timor that which is the most usual and democratic decolonisation process, the holding of a REFERENDUM ... (because) we are dying as a people and as a nation". (16)

The Indonesians kept pushing for religious integration as a step towards political integration. The Secretary of the Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Situmorang, stated: "We have always wanted East Timor to participate in our Episcopal Conference, not only for nationalist reasons, but also because of the ecclesiastic ties between us". These ties, he said, "intensify the Timorese's feeling of belonging to Indonesia". (17) The position of the Nuncio, Monsignor Canalini, did not seem far removed from this view, although he was more conscious of diplomatic procedure: "We are aware of the Indonesian Government's wish to see the Timorese Church directly administered by the Indonesian Episcopal Conference" but "the Holy See is of the opinion that Indonesia should not intervene until the question of East Timor has been resolved in international forums. When the problem has been settled there, the Holy See will proceed without any hesitation". (18)

The Indonesian authorities were unhappy when the letter to the UN Secretary General became public. Once again, the Apostolic Nuncio took their side and, according to the Indonesian press, stated that the Bishop's letter represented "neither the aspirations of the Catholic Church nor of the people of East Timor". (19) The Timorese clergy replied to the Nuncio in an open letter that "the clergy of Dili refute the biased views and suggestions expressed by certain ecclesiastic personalities (...) The Bishop is theologically, juridically and ecclesiastically, for all intents and purposes, the representative of the local Church when, in that capacity, he speaks about the Church and what the clergy and people feel". (20)

Monsignor Belo also wrote to the Bishop of Setubal (Portugal), asking him to support his appeal for a referendum The Bishop of Set bal enlisted the support of over 150 Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals, but when he wanted to go to New York to deliver a petition to the UN Secretary General, the Apostolic Nuncio in Lisbon forbade him to do so, and also banned him from publicly intervening on East Timor (this ban was lifted in 1992).


When the Pope's visit to Indonesia was announced, the Timorese clergy warned the Vatican of the danger of the visit being manipulated to show support for integration. The Vatican, however, did not heed the warning and, when the Pope landed in Dili, a huge advertising placard greeted him with "Welcome to Timor Timur, 27th Province of Indonesia".

During the Pope's visit, Monsignor Belo was asked by a journalist whether it was true that the Vatican had criticised his letter to the UN. The Bishop replied simply: "Yes. We do not share the same viewpoint. They think I am being political. If I were in Rome, perhaps I would also be of that opinion. But I live here. I see the people's suffering and share in it. It was my duty to write that letter". (21) Also, to a Portuguese missionary magazine, he stated: "I was not ready to take up this post. I was only in the priesthood for two years when I was cast here into a diocese with all kinds of tensions. After a few years of being in touch with the people, I feel that the task is a difficult one, and the thought of resigning has crossed my mind. But if the Holy See is confident in me, and if the people want me to stay, then I will stay, and sacrifice myself for the people". (22) Some journalists thought then that Monsignor Belo would not be head of the diocese for much longer.

An allusion to the case of East Timor may be read in John Paul II's Jakarta speech, when he warns the Indonesian authorities that "a political unity, based solely on military or economic might, can easily disintegrate". However, when greeting the Church of Indonesia he added: "totally Catholic and totally Indonesian. These words are deeply etched into the modern history of the nation. They express the attitude of many Catholics during the fight for independence, and continue to inspire the life of today's Church of Indonesia". (23)

In East Timor, the tone of the homily was totally different. Why? "They have tried destruction and death ... but we know, through faith, that love transcends the borders between nations, peoples and cultures. The differences, offences and injuries are of little consequence ... Forgive ... Love your enemies ...". (24)

In an important political document containing his "Peace Plan", made public at the time of the Pope's visit, Xanana Gusmao wrote: "Fortunately for the Maubere homeland ... the people of East Timor are not fighting alone. They are not alone because its Church is on their side ... Monsignor Belo has announced he is in favour of a referendum ... we unreservedly support our Bishop's proposal". (25)

When the mass said by the Pope ended, a pro-independence demonstration was violently repressed. In reply to questions from a journalist, Monsignor Belo refused to criticise the demonstrators: they "were merely expressing their discontent with the situation in Timor". (26)

Irritated by the demonstration, which lost them propaganda points gained by the Pope's visit, the Indonesian authorities accused some foreign Salesian missionaries of having incited the young demonstrators. Father Carbonell, the Salesian Superior who lives in Jakarta, wrote a letter to the authorities expressing his wish to "continue our mission preparing good Christians and good Indonesian citizens", (27) and he got the missionaries, accused of the incitement, to sign along with him. The Timorese clergy objected: "We wanted the foreign missionaries to be purely defenders of the Gospel ... and not colonising agents". (28)

The report of the Pope's visit, customarily sent to Rome by the diocese, was published in the Osservatore Romano, bearing the Bishop of Dili's signature: "all our differences must be eliminated, we must forget our past, and abandon unrealistic ambitions ... avoid demonstrations". This contradicts Monsignor Belo's previous statements. The Osservatore Romano also reported that the original had been written in Indonesian. Investigations have shown that the author was, in fact, Father Marcus Wanandi, an Indonesian, and brother of the Director of the Centre of Strategic Studies in Jakarta. Some time before, Father Wanandi had been appointed Director of Catholic teaching in East Timor.

Father Wanandi wrote it, but it bore the signature of Monsignor Belo. The Timorese priests criticised some of their Bishop's concessions, which were to have negative repercussions: the entry of Indonesian priests and religious workers, the occasional use of the Indonesian language in the liturgy, the transfer of management of the Seminary and S. Jose School to Indonesians ... without the priests being consulted on such decisions. Those speaking out against injustice were accused of being political, but not those who were friendly towards the Government. Reaffirming their position, the native priests wrote: "we want to be a Church rooted in the people, committed to their problems". (28)

Monsignor Belo acknowledged there were problems: "the presence of other nationalities creates difficulties: the Timorese think more about their rights, their country, their culture". (29)

The process which had led to the removal of Monsignor da Costa Lopes seemed to be repeating itself in early 1994. Monsignor Belo revealed to a Polish journalist that he was aware of two plots to have him assassinated, but that these had failed thanks to Timorese who had forewarned him about them. (30) At the same time, rumours persisted that the Vatican wanted to divide the diocese of Dili into two. The same rumours indicated that a new non-Timorese Bishop was to be appointed, and would probably be Father Carbonell, the Spanish Salesian who had told the authorities of his determination to transform the Timorese into "good Indonesian citizens". If transferred to Baucau, the second largest city of East Timor, Monsignor Belo and his appeals in defence of his people's rights would be relegated to a back seat position.


After 18 years of occupation and genocide, but also resistance and affirmation of its ideals, the people of East Timor have shown to the world's leaders that they "are different to the Indonesians", and that their "history and cultures are not the same. Realism demands that the people of this island be allowed to speak", said Monsignor Belo in an interview with the French daily "La Croix". The Bishop insists on the need for a referendum, but to achieve it international solidarity, including solidarity from the "high-ranking Church authorities" which has been lacking all these past years, is vital: "I am not referring to moral, spiritual and pastoral support, which is real. I am speaking about active support, that is, political". (31)

Peace is Possible in East Timor

June 1994

NOTES: (1) collective document from clergy in East Timor, 31.7.81 (2) written testimony of Monsignor da Costa Lopes (3) collective letter from the clergy, 13.5.83 (4) letter to Apostolic Administrator, priests and clergy of East Timor, 17.11.83 (5) Interview in Macau daily, "O Clarim", 19.8.81 (6) letter to the French Justice and Peace Commission, 12.84 (7) message from the Apostolic Administrator and Presbyterial Council of the diocese of Dili, 1.1.85 (8) undated written views of a Timorese cleric (9) views of a Timorese Christian, 2.5.85 (10) letter from a priest, 17.6.86 (11) Sinar Harapan, 16.10.85 (12) Hidup, n. 4 - 1987 (13) letter to Mnsgr. da Costa Lopes, 10.3.88 (14) UCAN, Asia Focus, 20.8.88 (15) pastoral note, 5.12.88 (16) letter to the UN Secretary General, 6.2.89 (17) Asia News, 15.2.89 (18) Jakarta Post, 12.4.89 (19) Jakarta Post, 14.6.89 (20) collective letter from priests of diocese of Dili, 7.89 (21) Ouest France, 12.89 (22) Ale m Mar, 12.89 (23) homily given in Jakarta (24) homily given in Dili (25) document from X. Gusmao, 5.10.89 (26) LUSA agency (27) letter to the Head of Armed Forces in East Timor (28) reflections of the native priests, 8.90 (29) Publico, 26.9.90 (30) Rzecjpospolita, 25.3.94 (31) La Croix, 5.94 ** End of text from cdp:reg.easttimor **

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