Subject: Bishop Belo: An Invitation To Tea in Dili

Expresso [leading Portuguese weekly] 29 June 2002



The fireworks that lit up the skies over Dili have receded into memories, and the task of building our newly independent country stands before us, immense and daunting. Despite all the challenges we must meet, it is not too soon to reflect on the debt we owe to others. It would be difficult to sufficiently thank all the international friends who have earned the gratitude of the people of East Timor and myself in particular. But an attempt must be made to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of the Portuguese nation, in all its constituent parts, for its steadfast solidarity and support for the people of East Timor.

I take this opportunity to convey my profound appreciation for the constant support of President Sampaio, Prime Minister Durao Barroso and their predecessors, without whose help we would still be in bondage or worse. The immense generosity displayed to the Church and people of East Timor by the Portuguese State (more than any other country in the world, in absolute terms, with the exception of Japan, and far greater than that in relation to the size of Portugal’s economy) and the Portuguese Church, led by Dom Jose Policarpo, must never be forgotten. Dom Policarpo ordained me in 1981 and always held out a hand of friendship. Numerous Portuguese from all walks of life, churchgoers, believers and nonbelievers, groups of solidarity and others, from one end of Portugal to the other, have helped us in many ways. On behalf of the people of East Timor, I express our profound gratitude for the assistance of the good Portuguese people.

It is no secret that I have had what some might describe as a paradoxical relationship with the Portuguese media, whose members, I am keenly aware, often risked their lives to bring news from East Timor to the outside world. In some of the darkest days of the Indonesian occupation (or at least at the times when journalists were allowed to visit me: in 1989 during the papal visit, on a relative handful of occasions before that year, and from 1991 on), when I urgently needed to convey a message to the outside world, I would gratefully turn to the language in which I was educated and the intrepid souls who made the long journey to East Timor from Lisbon and other places in Portugal to gather news of our plight. On other occasions, because of circumstances, it was impossible for me to be as open as I would have liked. More recently, after the Indonesian occupation ended, we in the East Timorese Church were faced with endless destruction and bereavement, a dizzying set of tasks that few mortals could hope to adequately meet. If I were able to split myself in two, I could have spent my days simply giving interviews. A balance needed to be struck; I confess that I could not always meet expectations in a manner satisfactory to the news media.

There is little that is perfect in life. So it is with a bishop – myself in particular. While I am often subject to a higher level of stress and strain than others, I am expected to adhere to a higher standard of behavior. Being only human, and no angel, I sometimes fall short, and therefore must beg pardon.

However, it must be understood that from the moment I sent a letter to the United Nations in 1989 calling for a referendum on the future of East Timor, I was subject to periodic threats of assassination and other forms of intimidation. In light of these dangers, life had to be taken day by day. Like my predecessor as apostolic administrator of Dili, the late Dom Martinho da Costa Lopes, I made no secret of my willingness to sacrifice my life if that was required. However, a fate worse than death, from my perspective, was the threat of banishment from East Timor, and this threat was directly tied to statements I might make while at home or abroad. In looking back, life was like a constant tightrope. But from their perspective, the news media, and the Portuguese media in particular, were often disappointed with statements I might make, or the lack of them.

Here, I must add that from the time that he was Mayor of Lisbon, President Sampaio was most sensitive to the delicate situation in which I was forced to live, bearing in mind the depth of his own experience under authoritarian rule. The same was true of Durao Barroso, who as Foreign Minister, like then-Mayor Sampaio, would quietly visit me at the headquarters of my Salesian Order, Casa Don Bosco, in Lisbon, always mindful of the difficulties I faced. More than most, both of these individuals understood what I could and could not say and do, and why.

In East Timor itself, for many years, I and my brethren were almost totally isolated – without visitors, journalists or otherwise, and with comparatively little outside support. Nonetheless, my people and Church persevered, despite all the obstacles. In Portugal, there were long years prior to the Santa Cruz massacre in 1991 when the only consistent journalistic interest came from people like Adelino Gomes, who narrowly escaped the fate of the five Australian television journalists killed by Indonesian forces in 1975 and never wavered in his desire to tell our story to the Portuguese nation, and Rui Aruajo of RTP, who visited our land in 1983 under arduous conditions. Over the dark years of diplomatic and political stalemate, when the question of East Timor was regarded by many as a lost cause, the interest of these gentlemen and others was often regarded by their colleagues in journalism as quixotic at best. In our pain and isolation, as a reaction to indifference, we E! ast Timorese developed a certain stubborn defiance born of necessity.

The pressures only increased after I was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. Taking all this complex history (much of which is scarcely known to outsiders!), and after the martyrdom of our people and clergy in 1999, coupled with a personal exhaustion stemming from almost no holidays over a period of two decades, I feel especially sensitive to comments hat I might find unwarranted, and for this, too, I beg pardon. But perhaps this, too, is natural: again, I am only human. As my dear brother bishop, Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau, has emphasized, because of my long service as a church leader, I became the target of Indonesian military wrath, culminating in the attack on my residence on 6 September 1999. There are strong indications that I may have been only minutes away from death myself. The trauma of this period, the grievous losses suffered by my people, are never far away from me, and this haunts my every waking hour.

On quite another level, there are differences in culture in East Timor and Portugal, which are often opaque to outsiders and are almost invariably subject to misunderstanding. These differences, often unacknowledged, should be settled on the basis of mutual respect and tolerance: they should not be allowed to interfere with the deep friendship that exists between our two peoples.

Rather than dwell on the past, or on differences of opinion, it is far preferable to move forward. I therefore would invite each and every member of the Portuguese media in East Timor to come to my residence at a mutually convenient time to share tea and cakes and conversation – and our common humanity. Let us put aside the past, in all its aspects, and build a better day, for both of our nations. 

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