For Australian Christians, East Timor represents a particular challenge. To assist in the creation of a new nation in our immediate neighbourhood, and in the birth of a new Christian nation in Asia, is both an opportunity and a responsibility.
The establishment of an independent East Timor has come at a difficult time. As the Timorese Salesian Brother, Marcal Lopes, has observed during his current visit to Australia, the overwhelmingly Catholic people of East Timor continue to suffer the effects of the destruction perpetrated by Indonesian- backed militias after the people voted overwhelmingly for independence just a year ago.
Despite the billions of dollars which have gone into East Timor - including almost $2 billion from Australia alone - the capital, Dili still has blocks of burnt-out, uninhabitable buildings. Some villages were wiped out. Many schools were torched. One of the finest centres of education, the Polytechnic in Dili, was totally destroyed.
Throughout East Timor today, malaria is common, as are dengue fever, polio, TB, malnutrition, mosquitoes, bad food and water. The UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, UNTAET, with the stated objective of laying the foundations for sustainable institutions in an independent East Timor, has made only slow progress in getting the country up and running, and there is growing discontent among many of the locals regarding their inability to get jobs. About 80 per cent remain unemployed.
Apart from the ever-present threat from pro-Indonesian militias, there are additional problems arising from divisions between supporters of the old political parties, and radically different perspectives between the majority of the population, who are under 35, and have only known Indonesian occupation, and the older group who remain nostalgic for Portugal.
The hope of the country is the Church, with hundreds of missionaries running schools (primary, secondary, technical and agricultural), churches, community health centres, orphanages, parishes and youth centres. They have much to teach us as we help them.
Peter Westmore: Publisher (E-mail - email@example.com)