Subject: SMH: Archbishop Belo lives on borrowed time
Date: Thu, 25 Feb 1999 21:43:43 -0500
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo:

Sydney Morning Herald 26/02/99

*Archbishop Belo lives on borrowed time

The Bishop of Dili knows his enemies would like to silence him - permanently. They have tried often enough, writes CHRIS McGILLION.

BISHOP Carlos Belo is lucky to be alive. An outspoken defender of the rights of the East Timorese, he has been the subject of numerous assassination attempts over the years, including several ambushes in the mountains outside East Timor's capital of Dili, where he lives, and even attempts to poison him inside his own home.

Now, with Indonesia having announced it is considering withdrawing from East Timor, and the fratricide already beginning inside the territory, these are especially dangerous times for Belo.

A civil war would suit the purposes of those few East Timorese (and certainly some Indonesians still) who don't want to see Jakarta quit the territory. Killing the bishop of Dili would be one sure way to start it.

Bishop Belo, who is in Australia to launch the Catholic Church's annual Lenten Project Compassion Appeal, concedes this. But in an exclusive interview with the Herald, he says it doesn't matter to him. "It is the role of the Church and the bishop to protect people, to suffer, even to die for the people," he says.

Then, as one who has stared death in the face many times, he adds: "If you die you only die once, not twice."

But this resolution has come slowly, grudgingly. His appointment as Apostolic Administrator of Dili in 1983 ran counter to Belo's dreams and wishes.

"When the Pope asked me, through his nuncio in Jakarta, to move to Dili, I was very sad," he confides. "I had to give up my experience, my work with young people, move to Dili and live there in the bishop's house, alone."

Still, Belo raised no objection. "I accepted it as the will of God," he says.

In the years since, Belo (he was consecrated a bishop in 1988) has matured as a churchman, grown wiser as a leader of his people, and wilier as an interlocutor between the East Timorese and the Indonesian authorities.

At 50, he still retains the soft good looks of a youthful Sidney Poitier, a broad smile that never seems to leave his face, and a gentle voice. But the gentle voice now speaks words of iron.

Asked about John Howard's recent statement that he thought East Timor would be better off remaining part of Indonesia, Belo smiles knowingly.

"Your Prime Minister could say these things to you but not the East Timorese people. I respect his ideas, but let the people of East Timor decide what they want to be," he says.

Belo is in no doubt about their answer.

When Indonesia's President B.J. Habibie announced last month that he was prepared to concede the East Timorese autonomy or, if they didn't want that, independence, the bishop went among his people to gauge their reaction. "When I talked about the first option, autonomy, all of them were silent," he says.

"When I talked about independence, there was shouting and joy."

That joy, if it continues, will owe much to Belo. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 the citation read: "At the risk of his own life, he has tried to protect his own people from infringement by those in power. In his efforts to create a just settlement based on his people's right to self-determination, he has been a constant spokesman for non-violence and dialogue with the Indonesian authorities."

Belo remains extremely self-effacing. Talk of the Nobel Peace Prize seems almost to embarrass him. He recoils from any reference to his stature as a leader of world renown. Instead, he calls himself un pobre pecador - meaning "a poor sinner" in Portuguese - and insists "I am not so special".

Still, many observers have compared Belo to El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero. When Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 he was regarded as a safe bet - someone who would not rock the boat or upset the ruling oligarchy. But Romero was soon caught up in the whirlwind of El Salvador's vicious civil war.

The murder of Romero's friend, Father Rutilio Grande, by a right-wing death squad pushed Romero off the ideological fence and he declared his church to be "at the disposition of the poor" in their struggle for justice. Soon after he was shot dead while celebrating Mass in the cathedral in San Salvador.

Belo was also viewed as a safe successor to the passionate nationalist Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes.

But the harsh reality of the life under Indonesian occupation soon brought Belo around (he had been studying abroad when Indonesia invaded East Timor) and the 1991 massacre in Dili, in which several hundred peaceful East Timorese demonstrators were killed by Indonesian troops, anchored him as a defender of human rights. Belo, however, has been careful to eschew an overtly political role.

"I don't have any influence," he suggests somewhat coyly. "My role is only to talk about the rights of the people and their point of view. As for politics, let politicians like Xanana Gusmao decide things."

He admits that some members of his religious order, the Salesians, once urged him to follow the same course as that taken by Jean Bertrand Aristide in Haiti.

Aristide, who was also a Salesian priest until he left the congregation a few years ago, was a passionate defender of the rights of the poor. He was elected president of Haiti, was overthrown in a coup and led a government-in-exile as Haiti re-emerged from under the heel of a particularly brutal military dictatorship.

Belo turned down the advice. "I try to remain faithful to my vocation as a priest and I don't have pretensions to become president or a minister because for me these things are not important."

Nor, he argues, are they appropriate options for someone in his position. "The role of the Church is not a political one; to say to the people 'you choose A or B'. But when we see there is injustice and oppression we defend the people.

"The Church is the people. The Church can't exist if the people disappear. When we defend the people we defend the Church."

THE people of East Timor have certainly responded to this defence. Before Indonesian troops invaded the territory in 1975, about 35 per cent of East Timorese were Catholics. Now the figure is 98 per cent, making East Timor the most Catholic country in the world.

One reason for this dramatic upturn in membership is that the Church remained one of the few institutions outside the control of the Indonesian authorities after 1975. It used its position of relative freedom to speak out for the rights of the East Timorese and to protect their culture from outside influence by teaching local languages in Catholic schools and conducting liturgies in Tetum, a common dialect.

Another reason is Belo. If his eloquence in pursuit of peace and justice in East Timor has made him well known internationally, it is Belo's courage and compassion that have endeared him to people at home.

For instance, he was one of the first people on the scene after the Dili massacre. "I tried to help the victims but it was impossible because you were fighting against the dark forces of oppression. The first thing the victims asked for was water. But how could I even give them this with the Indonesian military behind me?"

Almost daily he comforts the victims of rape, torture or other abuses at the hands of Indonesian troops or the militias they arm and control. He personally takes up the complaints of East Timor against Indonesian authorities. He tries to calm passions and build bridges across the gulf of mutual hatreds and suspicions.

Does he fear that the present attachment of East Timorese, and particularly young East Timorese, to the Church may not last; that, as in Poland, once the enemy has been vanquished the number of practising Catholics will fall dramatically again?

"It doesn't matter if [the number] declines or progresses," he says. "In this difficult period we fulfil our role by talking on behalf of the silent majority and defending the people."

What will he do when East Timor achieves a just and lasting settlement?

"At that time I will thank God very much because finally I will have a moment of tranquillity, of peace," he says, and laughs as he admits he would also like to do more cooking in his spare time.

But in East Timor, a lot of dangerous terrain still remains to be crossed between the battlefield and the kitchen. During an address he gave on national reconciliation at St Mary's Cathedral on Wednesday night, Belo said he would not speak at length on the subject of forgiveness.

"It would be quite wrong of us to demand forgiveness from those who have been hurt so deeply. That is not something that is within our power. Individual acts of forgiveness are proof of the grace of God."

What then of him? Can Carlos Belo forgive those who have been guilty of so much suffering and death in East Timor, those who have tried to kill him, those who may at this moment be plotting his death? "I must forgive. As a priest, as a bishop, you must be the first to forgive in order to convince other people to do the same."

East Timor may need a nation of bishops before it lives again in peace.

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