The Church's vital role in future of East Timor

The Church's vital role in future of East Timor

Peter Westmore

Following the overwhelming vote by over 400,000 Timorese for independence from Indonesia, pro-Indonesia militias went on an orchestrated rampage of murder, arson and kidnappings, which precipitated the entry of an Australian-led UN force to restore order in the territory. This special report looks at the role of the Church in the reconstruction of East Timorese society.

Despite massive damage to religious institutions in East Timor during September, the Catholic Church and many missionaries have remained with the suffering East Timorese and begun the slow process of reconstructing the tortured territory.

Over the next few months, although all normal functions of government have been effectively destroyed, it will be the Church, together with the UN force and international relief agencies, which will provide for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced following weeks of militia violence, now largely halted by the presence of the Australian-led UN force, sent in to restore order.

A peaceful transition will also depend upon the co-operation of the new Indonesian government, and of the military which, in recent months, appears to have been completely out of control in East Timor, causing incalculable damage to the reputation of Indonesia itself.

Many religious orders - including Salesian priests, brothers and nuns, Canossian Sisters, and Jesuits - run schools, hospitals and orphanages in East Timor.

Throughout September, when the militia rampage was at its worst, most of the priests and religious in East Timor remained with their people.

There were many stories of remarkable heroism, including the Canossian sisters and their companions, who were murdered by armed men while carrying food to refugees in the mountains of Los Palos, in the eastern part of the province.


Many others who survived were equally heroic. Salesian missionaries stayed with refugees evacuated by Indonesian transport planes to Kupang, in West Timor. In the football stadium in Kupang, where they were placed, the missionaries are protecting 10,000 refugees from the continuing predations of the militia.

The courage of the priests and religious in East Timor has further cemented the ties between the Church and the people - of whom over 90 per cent are Catholic, and demonstrates the deep affinity between the people and the Church, which has been strengthened over the past 24 years of Indonesian control of East Timor.

With the arrival of the international peace-keeping force in mid- September, and its deployment throughout the territory, including the dangerous border region with Indonesian-controlled West Timor, the horrors of the past month are beginning to recede; people are decreasingly in fear for their lives, and are beginning to return to the shattered remains of their homes.

However, the next 12 months will be extremely difficult. Some 400,000 people lack permanent shelter, have little or no food to eat, and access only to the limited medical facilities of the international aid agencies and peace-keeping force. Hundreds of thousands of others were forced to go to West Timor, and their safety is uncertain. The civil administration is non-existent, and there are no laws or law-enforcement bodies.

There is the additional problem that the militia-inspired mayhem of September will be followed by pay- back killings. And, finally, the East Timorese remain deeply divided over the future of the territory, with militia units based in West Timor planning to return to East Timor, to kill members of the peace-keeping force and carry out acts of sabotage and reprisals.

In this troubled landscape, the role of the Church will be central. Even before the referendum vote, the Church was the most important protector of the people of East Timor. Apart from the provision of services like hospitals, schools and churches, the Church attempted to mediate the deep differences which exist in East Timor between pro- and anti-independence forces, between Timorese and Indonesians, and between civilians and the military. Foremost among them has been Bishop Carlos Belo, an East Timorese national and Salesian priest, appointed by John Paul II as Apostolic Administrator in Dili.

By preaching reconciliation and ensuring that the Church's mission is to address the suffering of all Timorese, the Church has a central role in bringing about the conditions under which peace can return to East Timor and, hopefully, it can take its place as a free and independent nation.

Just as Australia has taken the leading role in the UN peace-keeping mission to East Timor, the Church in Australia has a historic mission to facilitate the re-establishment of the Church in East Timor and, ultimately, assisting in the establishment of a new Christian nation in Asia.

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