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Timor’s Trampled Church

In the mid 1990s we Jakarta-based journalists didn’t get much chance to go to East Timor, which had been largely cut off since the 1991 Dili massacre. In early 1994 a group of us were allowed to go, but under heavy supervision. We stayed at the Turismo hotel, just down the road from Bishop Belo’s house. I slipped out early one morning to go watch him give mass, which led to this feature.

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Covering a Dili protest, 1995

East Timor Catholic Church a refuge under siege

By Jeremy Wagstaff

DILI, East Timor, March 4 (Reuter) – In the bishop’s garden, the thin grass is being trampled underfoot by long, silent columns of the faithful queueing for communion.

At a makeshift altar in the open air, Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo administers the sacrament, crossing the worshippers with flecks of ash to mark the beginning of Lent.

Noticeable for his batik shirt and apparent lack of devotion, one man stands next to a worn plaster bust of the Virgin Mary. In the charged, frightened atmosphere of East Timor under Indonesian rule, he is assumed to be a spy.

The Catholic church, since the Indonesian invasion in 1975, has been a refuge for East Timorese coming to terms with the upheavals and trauma of Jakarta’s sometimes brutal presence. But exiles and some Timorese say that refuge is now under threat.

From forming only a fraction of the population during 300 years of Portuguese colonialism, up to 95 percent of the territory’s 750,000 people are now registered Catholics.

Many reasons are given for the growth, from improvements in education and infrastructure which have enabled Timorese to study and practise religion, to an increasingly vocal church leadership which has spoken out in defence of ordinary people.

Despite pouring millions of dollars into the tiny territory, East Timor remains impoverished and most of its people at best indifferent to Indonesian rule. But with resistance reduced to symbolic gestures, the church is seen by many in a new light.

Among those still in East Timor, Belo has long been one of the most outspoken critics of aspects of Indonesian rule and some of his priests are said to be regularly harassed by the authorities for their sermons or statements.

Church and exile sources say Jakarta, fearful of the church’s role as a rallying point for tacit resistance, is using both carrot and stick to pull Belo and his priests into line.

“The church is the enemy. It is the only body with some degree of autonomy and so far has protection of some sort, so the next step is to discredit it,” said one Timorese exile.

Recently, Father Domingos Soares, a priest from Ermera known for his bluntness, was summoned for questioning in Dili.

Relatives said he was released unharmed the same day.

In letters and interviews, Belo has complained of harassment of his priests and flock, as well as accusing the military of barring some parishioners from attending church.

Individual Timorese have said that while in custody they have been questioned, sometimes under torture, to testify falsely against Belo and several of his more outspoken priests, church sources in Jakarta and Dili said.

“This is a campaign to discredit me among the Catholics in order to keep the faithful away from the churches. This is really like a communist regime that needs to be dismantled…,” Belo wrote in a private letter last September.

But mainly Islamic Indonesia is not always so heavy-handed in its treatment of East Timor’s Catholic church.

This financial year Indonesia has for the first time included assistance to the church — some 350 million rupiah, or $160,000 — in the provincial budget in recognition of its social role in the territory.

Some Timorese have welcomed the gesture as an olive branch. Others have accepted the offering despite questioning Indonesia’s motives.

Behind it, they say, is a diplomatic tug of war between the Vatican, Jakarta and Dili for control of the church. Since 1975 the Vatican has directly administered the diocese, resisting pressure to incorporate it into Indonesia, they said.

Vatican sources denied there had been any such pressure.

Last year, pro-Indonesian Governor Abilio Soares and Ambassador-at-large for East Timor Lopes da Cruz led delegations to Pope John Paul in Rome, where the issue of including the diocese in the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference was raised.

Father Marcus Wanandi, an Indonesian cleric in Dili whose statements are sometimes at odds with his more critical colleagues, said because of its size the diocese was likely to either be split in two or joined with the Indonesian church.

“Because of the population, one bishop is no longer enough. The burden is big because of the poor (church) infrastructure and people’s wish to always have their confession heard by the bishop himself,” Wanandi said in an interview.

Many Timorese see the battle, which some sources said has grown tougher in the past year, as an attempt by Indonesia to hijack the last refuge and rallying point for many East Timorese.

Timorese opposing integration into Indonesia in recent years have been hard hit by the capture of guerrilla leaders Xanana and Mauhunu and a subsequent weakening of the clandestine movement among the civilian population.

“They believe they have crushed the resistance and the clandestine (movement) and that the last bastion is the church, the only body still on t he people’s side,” one exile said.

Wanandi and others said there may be signs of an end to the tug of war. He said during a recent visit to Dili, newly appointed military commander Major-General Adang Ruchiatna Puradiredja assured the church it had his trust.

Bishop Belo accepted his assurances, Wanandi said.

But whatever the promises and diplomatic jockeying, for most of the faithful their worship remains a dangerous public act.

The Ash Wednesday ceremony over, the congregation leaves the grounds of the bishop’s house with barely a sound. Few mill around outside to chat, melting away into the morning to leave the streets to spies, informers and run-down taxis.

(c) Reuters 1994

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