Subject: AW: Dili's Muslims

Asiaweek September 8, 2000



Muslims have always been a minority in predominantly Roman Catholic East Timor. Yet the two communities managed to live in harmony for generations.

Descendants of the original Arab traders settled mostly around West Dili in a neighborhood called Kampung Alor. When in 1940, they decided to erect the AnNur Mosque, the Catholic bishop of Dili, Dom Jaime Goulart, contributed some of the bricks and even paid a surprise visit during construction. Later he often frequented the mosque during Muslim holidays.

Since the wave of violence that accompanied the vote on autonomy within Indonesia a year ago -- and set the stage for East Timor's independence -- many Muslims have sought refuge in the mosque. They include Indonesians who had settled in East Timor during the past decade seeking business opportunities or simply encouraged to move to the province under a national policy aimed at diluting the strength of independence-minded Timorese. The newcomers especially are afraid to return to their burned-out homes, where they would feel isolated isolated and defenseless.

With some 265 people, mostly families with young children, crowding into the mosque complex, life is uncomfortable, and they still sometimes are intimidated by young Timorese Christians, who hurl verbal abuse at them and throw stones. Several times in the past, mobs attempted to storm the premises. But nowadays heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers guard the mosque, while an American-made humvee vehicle with machine guns regularly cruises around the block keeping a lookout for troublemakers. So the residents feel relatively safe.

In January Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, taking a cue from his long-ago predecessor, visited the historic mosque on the eve of Eid-el Fitr, the Islamic holiday that celebrates the end of the Ramadan fast. Belo, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for efforts to advance autonomy for East Timor, told the Muslims that he would be the first to defend their historic building, or any other Islamic house of worship that came under another mob attack.

As the East Timorese celebrate their first anniversary of independence on Aug. 30, the scars left by 25 years of Indonesian military oppression remain. The harassment of the small Indonesian Muslim minority is becoming an important issue and a critical test for the religious and political tolerance of the new nation. Most of the refugees in fact now consider themselves to be Timorese and not Indonesians and have no intention of going back to the places they originally came from. They sit and wait until they feel they can return to their hometowns without having to fear for their lives.

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