Salesian provincial urges parishes to sponsor Timorese to World Youth Day 2008

Salesian provincial urges parishes to sponsor Timorese to World Youth Day 2008

Peter Westmore

Fr Andres Calleja SDB, the Provincial of the Salesian missions in Indonesia and East Timor, has urged Australian parishes to each sponsor one young person from East Timor to attend World Youth Day in Sydney, in 2008.

Speaking at the Thomas More Centre on 8 February, Fr Calleja said that unless such support were given, it would be impossible for many young Catholics in East Timor to attend World Youth Day which has had a remarkable effect in encouraging vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Fr Calleja was in Australia for an international meeting of the Salesians.

Religious influence

The East Timorese people, who are overwhelmingly Christian, have a very firm commitment to the faith, and have suffered for it. According to official figures, over 90 per cent are Catholic, and a further three per cent are Protestant.

The religious influence is reflected in high church attendances and the fact that numerous religious feasts are also public holidays. These include Corpus Christi, All Saints Day, All Souls' Day, the Immaculate Conception and Christmas Day.

During a recent visit to East Timor, I saw a parish church seating over 800 people that was filled to overflowing for each of its three Sunday Masses.

The Salesians - most of whom are indigenous East Timorese - run a series of outstanding schools in East Timor, recognised as among the best in a country which is just 400 km north-west of Darwin.

The Salesians also run medical clinics, orphanages and parishes in East Timor. The courageous former Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo, who personified the struggle of the people of East Timor for human rights and self- determination, and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, is a Salesian priest.

East Timor was originally colonised by Portugal in the 16th Century, although the first recorded visit to East Timor occurred much earlier, in about 1460. The Portuguese were after the precious sandalwood and spices. The other half of the island of Timor was colonised by the Dutch, and became part of Indonesia after World War II.

The Portuguese colonial period formally began in 1702 when the first governor was sent to East Timor and this lasted until 1974.

Portugal's rule was characterised by a policy of benign neglect. Few roads were built and most people mainained a traditional lifestyle in villages or in the countryside. The capital of East Timor, Dili, was a sleepy town of about 50,000 people.

However, in 1974, Portugal decided to abandon its colonial empire, which included Mozambique and Angola in Africa, and East Timor.

Just a year later, civil war broke out between those who favoured a continued relationship with Portugal, and the Marxist party known as Fretilin which wanted immediate independence.

Fretilin won the civil war, and unilaterally declared independence in November 1975. But less than two weeks later Indonesia invaded and forcibly incorporated East Timor, mercilessly putting down any signs of resistance.

During the Indonesian period, the country was transformed, with good roads established throughout and electricity made widely available. Much improved education and health systems were established.

However, Fretilin continued to conduct guerilla war from the rugged jungles which occupy much of the country, and many people died in subsequent years, both as a result of the fighting, economic disruption and Indonesian repression.

After years of international pressure, in 1999 Indonesia agreed to conduct a plebiscite under UN auspices on the future of East Timor. This resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of independence.

Indonesian-backed militias then set about destroying much of the country's infrastructure, and an international military force, led by Australia, restored order in the country, but it has taken years to recover. The effects are still visible.

Fretilin established itself as the new Government in 2002, when East Timor became independent. However, it has yet to face a popular election.

Australian police and army units were forced to return in 2006, after fighting broke out within the East Timorese army and police forces. Houses were burned and looted, and tens of thousands in the capital Dili were forced from their homes.

Many of these still live in UN and US-provided tents, particularly in religious centres such as the Salesian school at Comoro, without access to water, electricity or proper sanitation.

Australia's role

Because of Australia's role in rescuing East Timor from chaos in 1999 and 2006, the people of East Timor have a special affection for Australians.

By assisting young East Timorese attend World Youth Day, Catholic parishes in Australia will demonstrate in a very practical way their continuing engagement with our country's needy neighbour where the young make up a significant proportion of East Timor's around one million population - over half are estimated to be under the age of 21.

Such assistance will also strengthen the attachment of East Timorese to their faith, at a time when there is still a widely-held apprehension about the presence of Islamic extremists in neighbouring Indonesia.

The visit of a significant number of East Timorese to meet Australians, both at World Youth Day and in individual parishes, will have the effect of solidifying relations between the peoples of East Timor and Australia, and pave the way for further forms of co-operation.

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