East Timor: how the Church is rebuilding a shattered nation

East Timor: how the Church is rebuilding a shattered nation

Peter Westmore

Peter Westmore, publisher of 'AD2000', comments on his recent visit to East Timor.

Two years after departing Indonesian troops and their militia allies implemented a "scorched earth" policy in East Timor, the Catholic Church is playing a key role in rebuilding the nation.

During my recent visit to East Timor, signs of the destruction caused in September and October 1999 were everywhere.

In towns and villages, from the capital city, Dili, to the most remote parts of the country, stand empty shells of houses, government offices, banks, schools, hospitals, hotels and facilities formerly run by the departing Indonesians, who destroyed them in an orgy of destruction unparalleled in modern times, with the aim of driving the 800,000 people of East Timor into the stone age.

Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of people were killed, and at least 100,000 people were either compelled or persuaded to leave for Indonesian-controlled West Timor, where to this day, thousands remain in the hands of violent militias.

Yet, despite this, and the obvious poverty which afflicts so many, the people of East Timor remain a friendly, compassionate people, with a deep love of life and particularly children, who are everywhere.

One of the strongest influences in their lives is their Catholic Faith, which has sustained them through the difficult years of Indonesian rule and, particularly, the past two years.

The Faith is the glue that has held things together. I attended Mass on 2 November, All Souls' Day, at a suburban church in the capital, Dili. There were around 800 people present, most of them aged below 20. The following Sunday, I attended Mass in the village of Rasa, in the east. Around 400 people attended, many of whom had walked up to five kilometres.

Few government services are available. For most people, there are no postal or telephone services and electricity is only available in the two towns - where it is sporadic. The roads are poor, and there is little in the way of health and sanitation services. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has continued to provide a network of schools, health clinics, orphanages and churches, which have helped the people survive the difficulties of the past, and offer the promise of a better future.

An important part of this has been provided by Bishops Carlos Belo in Dili and Basilio Nascimento of Baucau, and the diocesan clergy. In the seminary in Dili, there are about 30 Timorese candidates for the diocesan priesthood.

At least equally important have been a number of religious orders which have operated in East Timor for decades, and provide the backbone of the Church's health, childcare and education services, as well as agricultural outreach services, and orphanages.

In many parts of East Timor, clinics run by religious orders provide the only available medical services, in a country where per capita incomes are among the lowest in Asia, infant and maternal mortality rates are high, and many die of diseases like dysentery, malaria and TB.

Most of the religious orders are Timorese by birth.

They include the Canossian Sisters; Salesian priests, brothers and nuns; Jesuits; Carmelite Sisters; members of an Indonesian order, the Daughters of the Queen of the Rosary; Sisters of St Paul of Chartres; and others.

Over the past two years, members of religious congregations from Australia have also gone to East Timor to assist in rebuilding the country.

Catholic and government schools

It is no exaggeration to say that Catholic schools and medical clinics are vital to the country.

I visited classes in schools, both government and Catholic, in the two largest centres, Dili and Baucau.

The contrast was stark.

Government school teachers were demoralised by poor facilities, lack of discipline and irregular attendance of teachers and students. For example, at the government high school in Baucau, many students were walking away from their school at about 11am, apparently because their teachers had not shown up.

Among the Catholic schools I visited, the most memorable was the Don Bosco technical high school at Fatumaca, about 15 kilometres from Baucau, with about 270 students in attendance. The school is run by Brother Marcal Lopes, a Timorese Salesian.

Brother Marcal's school is training people in building construction, carpentry, metal working, the electrical trade and electronics.

Its graduates are already providing skilled people who are making a substantial contribution to the development of the country. Since 1999, much of the reconstruction work has been done by the Interfet and UN forces, or contractors coming from countries like Australia.

Australia's contribution, particularly through the peace-keeping force, has been generous and is highly appreciated

A major uncertainty is how the newly elected government, predominantly members of Fretilin, the left-wing party which ran the guerilla war against Indonesia after 1975, will run the country. One Australian based in Dili, who works closely with the government, described the Fretilin leadership as "socialist dreamers".

Everybody is hoping they will have the maturity to harness the resources of the country. However, they will have to contend with regional rivalries, lack of resources, lack of unity and inexperience in government middle management.

In this complex situation, the future of East Timor will depend to a significant extent on the capacity of the Catholic Church, including its Bishops and the religious orders, to provide hope and a sense of purpose to the East Timorese, who have suffered greatly, and will continue to need the support of Australians, and others, in the years ahead.

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