Subject: Age: E.Timor: The kid who became bishop and hero calls it a day

The Age December 18, 2002

The kid who became bishop and hero calls it a day

He says he is ill and exhausted, but insiders say Bishop Belo of Dili has quit because he is weary of Vatican interference. Jill Joliffe reports.

The recent resignation of Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo as head of the Catholic Church in East Timor has brought to a close a courageous and painful period in the life of the Nobel laureate. And, in the current volatile climate, it has also heightened the feeling of political insecurity in the newly independent nation.

Officially, Bishop Belo resigned because of ill health. In a letter, issued on November 26, he said he was suffering from "exhaustion, physical and psychological tiredness" and needed a long period of rest to recover his health.

But church insiders say he was fed up with the Vatican's long-standing practice of making changes to the structure of the East Timor church without consulting local clergy.

Belo embarked on the journey that led him to become a Timorese hero in 1981 when he returned from exile after fleeing from the 1975 civil war. At this time he was being groomed to become the new head of the East Timorese church. In 1983 he was appointed apostolic administrator, then, in 1988, he was confirmed as bishop.

I first saw Carlos Belo soon after Pope John Paul II had informed him of his appointment. He was pointed out to me by a Timorese friend as he trudged through the winter mud of a Lisbon refugee camp.

"There goes the new bishop," he said. "Don't you want to interview him?"

I thought he was joking. I saw a slim young man who looked little more than a schoolboy. Back in East Timor, the tough and wily acting bishop, Martinho Lopes da Costa, was doing serious battle with the Indonesian military, going into jails to pull prisoners out and preaching no-holds-barred nationalist sermons.

This young man didn't appear to be made of the same stuff. "No, I don't think so," I said, making a snap decision that I would forever regret.

The slim young man, who was, in fact, 35, replaced the elderly Martinho Lopes after the Vatican yielded to Indonesian pressure to dismiss him. Lopes arrived in Lisbon soon after with a deep sense of betrayal.

Weeping crowds had farewelled him in Dili, fearful that there would no longer be a church leader to stand between them and the occupying Indonesian army.

Belo had been hand-picked because he came from a family in Baucau that had connections with the pro-Indonesian Apodeti party, and was thought to be malleable.

Years later he told his biographer Arnold Kohen he had felt completely inadequate for the job. "I was just a kid," he said.

In the years that followed, this saintly "kid" confronted one of the ugliest military machines in the world. He provided leadership to a whole new generation of nationalists, practising non-violence and moral firmness in an atmosphere of unremitting violence.

If he had any thoughts of taking an easy way out, they were quickly dispelled. Soon after his appointment, Indonesian troops executed civilians at Kraras, near Viqueque, in reprisal for an attack by East Timorese guerrillas. He travelled to the site and publicly denounced the atrocity.

Henceforth the Indonesian Government had a new nationalist cleric with which to contend.

Belo was literally the father of the 1999 UN-supervised referendum that brought East Timor its freedom. In 1989, he had smuggled out a letter to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar requesting a referendum and reminding the world body that no act of self-determination had ever been held.

While the letter attracted the ire of the Catholic hierarchy, it became a benchmark in the fight for independence.

By the time of the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre, Bishop Belo was a besieged, internationally-recognised champion of the nationalist movement. Captured on videotape by Yorkshire Television, the massacre changed world perceptions of the situation in Timor, but put Belo under even greater pressure.

Journalists hounded him and Indonesian intelligence agents threatened him. Would-be helpers, whether solidarity organisations or governments, pulled him in opposite directions, pursuing their own vested interests. Lesser men would have collapsed under the strain, but he maintained a strong front.

After Santa Cruz, there was much lobbying for him to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he finally won in 1996 as co-laureate with exiled Timorese activist Jose Ramos Horta.

In 1998, to relieve Belo's workload, the Vatican decided to create a second diocese in East Timor. Father Basilio Nascimento, a Timorese who had spent many years in Portugal, became the Bishop of Baucau.

At the height of Indonesia's scorched earth withdrawal in 1999, militia gangs attacked and burnt Bishop Belo's residence. Shots were fired at him and he was bundled into a car by Indonesian officers and flown to Baucau to an unknown fate. He had no wish to abandon East Timor, but Nascimento met him in Baucau and counselled him to fly on to Darwin for his own safety.

Since Indonesia's withdrawal, he has continued to work tirelessly, but stress has manifested itself in his growing irascibility and at times outright rudeness, even to his own priests. He has also made himself unavailable to journalists.

When Bishop Belo made one of his habitual visits to Europe in September, it did not draw much attention in East Timor. Had his countrymen known his intent they would have been distressed - he was carrying a letter of resignation to Pope John Paul II.

He was in Europe again in November and visited the Pope with Nascimento. Soon after, the Portuguese weekly Expresso ran a story saying he intended to resign because of poor health and Vatican plans to reorganise the Timorese church hierarchy. Confronted with the story by journalists, Belo first denied it, but then said: "Let's see, it all depends on the evolution of my health."

On Monday, November 25, Monsignor Renzo Ratini, the papal nuncio (diplomatic representative) in Jakarta travelled to Dili. The following morning he met the two Timorese bishops and told them the Pope had accepted Bishop Belo's resignation.

While the Vatican never formally recognised Indonesian sovereignty in the former Portuguese colony, with the Timorese church being administered directly from Rome, it did waver in that direction, as the dismissal of Martinho Lopes demonstrated.

But throughout the years of Indonesian rule in East Timor, the nationalist struggle was reflected in the local church's determination not to answer to the Indonesian Bishops' Conference.

Having contributed so much to independence, the clergy wanted to see the changes made in independent East Timor also reflected in the church structure.

The Vatican has decided to create a third diocese in three years time. Under canon law, only then can the church have its own council of bishops and be entitled to its own nuncio.

Meanwhile, the Jakarta nuncio will continue to be the intermediary between the Dili diocese and the Vatican, as it was during the occupation.

Father Luisito Caupayan, an episcopal vicar for the diocese and a special assistant to Bishop Belo, says the Timorese clergy are disappointed at the slow pace of change and that this sense of being put in abeyance may have contributed to Belo's resignation.

Jill Joliffe is an Australian journalist working in East Timor.


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