Subject: CIIR: United Islamic Centre of East Timor and CIIR

Interfaith work - Unicet and CIIR

5 7 2004

East Timor’s Muslim community lives in fear. Since the Indonesian armed forces left the country after the 1999 referendum for independence, leaving behind them a trail of destruction, the small Muslim population of East Timor has been made to feel partly responsible for the 24 years of brutal occupation.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, and some saw the occupation of Roman Catholic East Timor as a conflict with religious undertones.

In a small room in a building next to the main mosque in Dili, the capital of East Timor, one of the leaders of the nation’s Muslim community explains the difficulties they are facing.

‘The Indonesian army killed thousands of people during the occupation,’ says Mohammed Igbac Menezes, the president of the United Islamic Centre of East Timor (Unicet). Today, people think that because Indonesia is Muslim, the Muslims were responsible for all that. They try to claim that Islam is a killer.’

Every night in the months following independence, people would throw rocks at the mosque and hurl abuse at the Muslims. On 4 December 2002, a riot erupted in Dili and the mosque was attacked as was the home of East Timor’s prime minister, also a Muslim.

The situation is still tense, although calmer. And the Muslim community sees this as an opportunity to work for interfaith tolerance.

That’s why Menezes set up Unicet to tackle the problems of rampant poverty and factionalism within the Muslim community. The East Timorese Muslims are among the poorest and receive little help from the other two Muslim groups in the country, the Arab Muslims and the Indonesian Muslims.

The Arab Muslims, for instance, are trying to take over Dili’s mosque area and preach a more fiery brand of Islam, according to Menezes. And they and the Indonesian Muslims receive all the aid meant for the Muslim community ­ such as that following the visit of the Malaysian prime minister to East Timor. The East Timorese Muslims, numbering barely 700 people, were forgotten.

Today, Unicet is teaming up with the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) to work on interfaith tolerance and community development. Ildefonso Guterres, CIIR’s community worker in East Timor, has been instrumental in setting up this relationship.

The idea of doing development work with other faith communities came out of CIIR’s interfaith roundtable in February 2003 in Manila, Philippines, he says. Back in East Timor, CIIR’s staff made contact with Unicet to offer its support, which was eagerly accepted.

‘We help Unicet identify the problems in their community and find ways of resolving them,’ he says. ‘It’s capacity building,’ which is development jargon for a programme that seeks to increase the capability and skills of another organisation so that it can then develop further on its own.

Unicet started organising the community into groups in December 2003. In March, it plans to hold workshops for the groups to help them identify the problems they wish to tackle. A national congress of Muslims is planned to deal with issues at the national level. Unicet is also launching an orphan programme, and is trying to find donors to support eight orphans.

In a display of interfaith unity, Unicet invited the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches and CIIR to the Idul Fitri celebrations that marked the end of Ramadan. Religious leaders hope that such events will show people that the faiths can get on and thereby increase tolerance.

Says Guterres: ‘Before, the Christians would say that they had to fight for their God or the Muslims would occupy them. But since independence many of us have worked to show that Muslims, Catholics and Protestants are all the same human beings. God is unlimited and everywhere.’

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