Subject: SCMP: Catholic influence wanes, but religion still plays a role

South China Morning Post

March 13, 2003


Catholic influence wanes, but religion still plays a role


It is only a rough map, but the message is clear. East Timor is shown surrounded by Falintil freedom fighters, with a huge cross close to Dili. In the new, independent East Timor, the strange quasi-Catholicism of Sagrada Familia can finally be expressed openly, even if it is not exactly an orthodox brand of Christianity.

"Viva Sagrada Familia", declares the writing on a wall in the home of former resistance fighter Cornelio Gama - known as "L7" - who founded the movement in 1989.

The "holy family" certainly would not have made such a public appearance a decade ago. According to the founder, Sagrada Familia played a major role in undermining Indonesian rule in East Timor. It came at a time when Indonesia was systematically trying to wipe out the Timorese identity and replace it with its own, quasi-Javanese, quasi-Islamic identity.

Mr Gama founded the organisation as a means of combatting Indonesian propaganda against the resistance. Coming out of the jungles at night to cement their ties through traditional ceremonies involving chicken sacrifice and other animistic rituals, it became a resistance within a resistance and is still spoken of in hushed tones by the more radical East Timorese.

"The Indonesian army brought false rumours," said Mr Gama. "They said that Falintil in the jungles were all dead."

First came reconciliation in the towns, then the ceremonies at which they were expected to swear an oath. Members of Sagrada Familia had to return to traditional Timorese culture, much of which would make orthodox Catholic clerics shudder. Thanks to Sagrada Familia, Mr Gama claims, Falintil was able to move freely again. This programme helped Falintil re-establish itself after being almost wiped out by the Indonesians, he said.

Sagrada Familia still exists. Also euphemistically referred to as the "Baucau group", after Mr Gama's native area, it is a political force to be reckoned with, although exactly what it stands for is not clear, other than a very basic kind of social justice. "It is there to bring peace to all the people," said Mr Gama.

East Timor is often referred to as a Catholic region, and technically it is true. The black headscarves often worn by girls in Dili might not look out of place in a colonial-era Sunday school photograph taken in Lisbon.

But even church leaders say that one of the less welcome by-products of independence will inevitably be some weakening of the church's influence, which grew strong only during the Indonesian occupation, thanks to a clear threat of Islamicisation. A quasi-religious cult similar to Sagrada Familia, calling itself Colimau 2000, has recently sprung up in the border areas.

Shortly before independence last year, Nobel Peace laureate and former Dili bishop Carlos Belo issued a tirade against the less desirable influences brought by the United Nations, in particular the growth of prostitution. Former governor Mario Carrascalao recalls the subtle attempts to Islamicise the East Timorese. Groups of Timorese were shipped to other parts of Indonesia, apparently in the hope of Islamicising them through intermarriage and increased contact with Indonesians.

The threat may not be quite over. East Timor is one part of the world that Osama bin Laden has specifically mentioned as a focus of his concern, a part of the Muslim world, in his view, that has been separated from the rest.

In Mr Carrascalao's view, foreign missions in Dili should be very careful, particularly those of countries like Australia and Portugal that have supported the United States' war on terror.

"They consider Australia to be to blame for East Timor becoming free of the effort of Islamicisation," he said. "In a situation like this you had better pay attention to everything."

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