Subject: Bishop Belo: To rebuild, East Timor needs help

The Florida Catholic (Orlando) March 30, 2000

Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, apostolic adminstrator of Dili, East Timor, is the only Catholic bishop ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 in a move never recognized by the Vatican or United Nations. More than 200,000 East Timorese were killed or died from famine or disease during Indonesia's often brutal rule. Bishop Belo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for being an unflinching defender of his martyred people. In his first major international statement since last August's vote for independence, he writes exclusively for The Florida Catholic.

To rebuild, East Timor needs the help of American Catholics

By Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo Dili, East Timor

I have visited the United States several times, and have enjoyed the hospitality and solidarity of American Catholics, who have shown great sympathy for my Church and people. Now, more than ever before, we urgently need direct American help.

It may seem distant now, but violence in East Timor was seen by television viewers throughout the world last August and September. During that time, so much of my native land, a mountainous island territory about the size of Connecticut, was cruelly destroyed. Many hundreds of people, including priests, nuns, seminarians and other church workers, were murdered without pity, others were maimed. An untold number remain missing. Most of the country was devastated: my own home and chapel were burned, as were the diocesan offices in the capital.

Nonetheless, in light of the terrible suffering that struck East Timor and the painful losses that still afflict it, a bishop and the Church have no special status. And, without doubt, it was the people at large who suffered the most, with as many as 90 percent displaced. Tens of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods and what little property they had. When my home was attacked, dozens taking refuge there were killed or injured without mercy. Hundreds of thousands were forcibly driven across the border with West Timor, the Indonesian side of the island, where about 100,000 East Timorese remain in squalid refugee camps where people have been terrorized. In East Timor itself, many families remain separated. Parents search for children, children search for parents, seemingly without end.

Why did this happen, and who is responsible? The rampage of last September in particular was orchestrated by Indonesian army elements and militias under their control to reverse the result of the August 30 United Nations-sponsored election, in which nearly 80 percent of registered voters rejected Indonesian rule. It was hardly surprising that people voted as they did: at least one third of our population of 700,000 had perished from the combined effects of Indonesia's 24-year occupation. Neither was it surprising, in view of this history, that Indonesian forces brazenly tried to overturn the will of the people. Despite months of warnings and reports of mounting violence, only after East Timor was aflame before the eyes of the world did the international community bring decisive pressure to bear on the Indonesian military. This might not have happened were it not for strong efforts by the Holy See, the U.S. Catholic Bishops and others of good will.

Even so, soon after the entry of international peace keepers in late September, many say East Timor disappeared from public view, at least as far as television is concerned. Indeed, to people from far away, it may have seemed as if the crisis had come to an end.

Indonesian forces finally withdrew from East Timor in late October. But nearly six months later, reconstruction of our martyred land is barely visible. Even now, supplies to rebuild have not yet arrived in many if not most places: I hope the United States can help, both in terms of material support and in using its influence with the United Nations.

Though the United Nations is present in East Timor in large numbers, they have made comparatively few jobs available for East Timorese people, even though most are without work: a special effort must be made to include them.

To rebuild in peace, families must be united. But for this to happen, all those in refugee camps in West Timor and elsewhere who want to return to East Timor must be allowed to do so. At the same time, militia members now in West Timor cannot be permitted to resume their violent activities under any circumstances. Elements of the Indonesian army should be convinced to stop supporting the militias and allow people to freely return to East Timor. Further pressure on the Indonesian army from Washington is needed.

As of now, however, all is not yet secure. There have been numerous border attacks in recent weeks by militias who could not continue to operate without the support of the Indonesian army. Some of those who returned to East Timor during this time were found to be carrying firearms and grenades, which were confiscated by United Nations troops. But the fact that they had such weapons was a sign that some elements of the Indonesian military intend to continue to promote violence in East Timor. Indonesia badly needs the good will of Washington if it is to receive the billions of dollars in international bank loans that it needs. Therefore, the United States influence should be used to prevent a new outbreak of violence in East Timor.

Will the United States use this influence? Without the influence and solidarity efforts of American Catholics, it is unlikely that Indonesian troops would have withdrawn from East Timor at all. To rebuild, and to do so, in peace, the help of our American brothers and sisters in Christ is needed.

Catholic Relief Services works directly with the church in East Timor. Those wishing to support CRS' programs in East Timor should call 1-800-736-3467. Checks payable to: "Catholic Relief Services-East Timor," PO Box 17090, Baltimore, Md. 21203-7090.

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