Subject: SMH: Bishop Kept Timor Secrets To Himself

Sydney Morning Herald August 29, 2002

Bishop Kept Timor Secrets To Himself

BYLINE: Jill Jolliffe

Dom Jose Ribeiro took up the post of Bishop of Dili in 1965 when Portugal's Salazar dictatorship still held power. Although he was born and has died of a heart attack in the radical south of Portugal, he was very much a figure of the old regime, who bitterly opposed Lisbon's 1974 revolution and the growth of East Timor's nationalist Fretilin party.

He succeeded the popular Bishop D. Jaime Goulart, a man of more democratic temper who had influenced a generation of burgeoning East Timorese nationalists. Among them was Martinho da Costa Lopes, a Timorese priest who became Ribeiro's vicar-general, and then acting bishop, after his 1977 retirement.

Under Portugal's 1940 Concordat agreement with the Vatican, church and state were virtually inseparable. In her 1988 book Fighting Spirit of East Timor, Lopes's biographer, Rowena Lennox, said Ribeiro told him he feared Fretilin because he believed the party would sever this bond. His prediction was borne out earlier this year when the Fretilin-dominated East Timor Parliament drafted the constitution for the now-independent nation. It afforded equal status to all religions, while recognising the Catholic Church's special contribution to the liberation struggle.

Despite this background, Ribeiro played a courageous and neutral role in the violence that followed Portugal's announcement that it would decolonise. During the August 1975 civil war between Fretilin and the rival UDT party he strode through Dili under crossfire to escort a group of nuns to an evacuation point.

When Indonesian paratroopers landed in Dili in December that year, he confronted their commanders in the streets, insisting on ferrying the wounded to hospital in his own car. Lopes told Lennox that Ribeiro was slapped in the face by an Indonesian officer on one occasion and that his bishop's ring was torn from his hand because Indonesia would never recognise a white bishop.

In 1977 Ribeiro evaded Indonesian surveillance to denounce Indonesian atrocities to the Australian journalist Richard Carleton, in an off-the-record briefing.

He was alleged to have witnessed mass executions on Dili wharf, including that of the Australian freelancer Roger East, the only reporter who stayed on in East Timor to report the invasion. However when an Australian government investigator, Tom Sherman, visited Portugal in 1996 Ribeiro refused to testify on East's death, and has taken his secrets to the grave.

Domingos de Oliveira, a UDT leader who remained in East Timor after the invasion, said from Perth that Ribeiro had played an admirable role during the Indonesian occupation.

"During the paratroop attack he and Father Martinho attempted to collect and bury the bodies of those who had been executed," he recalled. "Later, he urged us to resist the occupation, but with intelligence." He said he told the Timorese they should do everything possible to smuggle information to the outside world.

Ribeiro was facing nervous collapse by late 1977. The Vatican agreed to free him of his duties, and he returned to Portugal.

With his retirement Martinho da Costa Lopes became acting bishop of Dili, the first native-born East Timorese to occupy the post. His nationalist sermons infuriated the Indonesian military and in 1983 the Vatican bowed to Indonesian pressure to remove him.

He was replaced by the youthful Carlos Ximenes Belo, who was expected to be more malleable. He instead followed in the footsteps of his two predecessors by denouncing human rights violations and in 1996 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ribeiro lived out his last years in a Catholic retirement home in Evora.

Photo: Dom Jose Joaquim Ribeiro, Last Portuguese bishop, of East Timor, 1918 - 2002

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