Subject: UCAN Interview: Bishop Basilio on Struggle And Sacrifice Needed To Attain Peace And Stability

ET03552.1469 October 31, 2007 158 EM-lines (No count of words)

EAST TIMOR UCAN Interview - Struggle And Sacrifice Needed To Attain Peace And Stability

BAUCAU, East Timor (UCAN) -- The bishop of Baucau sees the need for much sacrifice and hard work before the people of East Timor can enjoy the fruit of peace and stability after a difficult transition to democracy with inadequate preparation.

Bishop Basilio do Nascimento has headed his diocese since before East Timor gained its independence from Indonesia in 1999 and then emerged as Timor Leste, Portuguese for East Timor, in 2002. Baucau covers the eastern part of the country and Dili diocese the western part.

In Baucau city, where his diocese is based, about 120 kilometers east of Dili, supporters of the Fretilin party went on a rampage following an announcement on Aug. 5 that independence hero Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, Timor Leste's first president, would be appointed prime minister.

Fretilin won the most votes in the June national election, but its 21 seats in the 65-member parliament were far short of the majority needed to form a government. Gusmao's party picked up only 18 seats, but then formed an alliance with three other parties to create a parliamentary majority.

Young supporters in Baucau, a Fretilin stronghold, felt their party had been cheated, so they rioted Aug. 7-9 in the city and outlying districts, burning homes and attacking government and Church buildings including the Caritas office, the local Church's social-service agency. On Aug. 10, a gang raped nine young girls at the Salesian-run convent school in Baguia subdistrict, 40 kilometers south of Baucau. More than 3,000 people fled their homes amid the violence.

In a subsequent interview with UCA News, Bishop do Nascimento pointed out that Timor Leste was ill-prepared for democracy and party politics. He also mentions some of the problems the Church had with the former Fretilin government. He concludes that much effort, struggle and sacrifice is needed to create a peaceful and prosperous country, something he believes is possible.

Bishop do Nascimento was born on June 14, 1950, in Timor Leste, then a Portuguese colony. He witnessed the brief weeks of freedom in 1975, after the Portuguese administration left and before Indonesian troops invaded.

He was ordained a priest on June 25, 1977, two years into Indonesian rule. He was appointed apostolic administrator of Baucau when the diocese was created in 1996. After the 1999 referendum in which a large majority of the people chose independence, he witnessed massive violence led by pro-Indonesia militias that killed hundreds of people and destroyed infrastructure.

In 2002, after Timor Leste's full independence following more than two years under a transitional U.N. administration, Bishop do Nascimento was appointed apostolic administrator of Dili as well as Baucau. In 2004, he was appointed bishop of Baucau and Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva became bishop of Dili.

The interview with Bishop do Nascimento follows:

UCA NEWS: How do you view the recent violence in your diocese?

BISHOP BASILIO DO NASCIMENTO: I think the violence in the eastern part of the country was because of the lack of political preparation [to accept the results of the election] and the mentality of the people. The Fretilin party never accepted it would lose. The results were not according to what the governing party at the time wanted.

Another reason is due to different interpretations. Fretilin interprets the constitution one way and President (Jose) Ramos-Horta interprets the law differently. Fretilin thinks the president was wrong to let the alliance form the government. That triggered protests from the Fretilin party.

I condemn the burning of homes and properties, and disturbance to people's lives. There is no justification for such violence. One can disagree, and politically one is allowed to protest. But one should respect property and life.

For political reasons, peaceful protest is a right. But something we should not forget is that this country has been independent for just five years, so democracy here is still young. Other countries that have been independent for many years still struggle with democracy.

In the 1999 referendum, we voted for independence. But we were not well prepared for independence. After independence in 2002, we were happy, but we were ill prepared in terms of our infrastructure, mentality and culture. We just started forming a government five years ago, so I think it is natural [to have problems]. Now we hope with the new government we can create stability again.

How have local Baucau people been affected?

The recent violence has strongly affected local people here. Economic activities were paralyzed for some time. People could not make a living in the markets, vendors could not sell their wares, villagers could not come to the market, public functions were paralyzed and schools closed. So it has really affected the community. The most affected area is Viqueque district (60 kilometers east of Baucau), where life is still not back to normal, and lots of people still hide in the mountains.

What has the Church been doing to assist the affected people?

The Church, through Caritas, has been offering help to the people who suffered from the violence. However, Caritas Baucau could not provide an immediate response because Caritas facilities were also destroyed. So Caritas of Dili diocese acted quickly to respond to the needs, and some parishes also organized small donations of items such as clothes and food.

What other challenges does the Church face?

There are lots of challenges, but I still believe in the changes taking place in society. Religion will one day become a reference for Timorese Catholics. Today many Catholics do not act like Catholics -- they commit violence against each other.

Education is another challenge. Family and youths are two important concerns in this country, but the diocese does not have the capacity to accompany them in their lives. Unemployment and social problems contribute to the crisis.

Some political leaders have said religious leaders should not get involved in politics.

This is true if a priest wants to take over power in the government, because no priest can be a minister or a leader of a political party. A priest should not be involved in political administration or management, because it is not his working area.

But as a human being, a priest has the obligation and moral responsibility to call attention if national leaders do something against the people's interest. So religious leaders are here to defend the people's rights.

How is the Church's relationship with the new government of Prime Minister Gusmao?

We communicate and collaborate with each other. This does not mean we did not collaborate with the former Fretilin-led government. But the relationship with the present government is a bit easier compared with the former government.

Why did the Church have problems with Fretilin?

There was one principle that we did not accept: some leaders in the former government said East Timor was a laiku (secular) state, meaning it had no official religions. What the former government did not explain is that this did not mean the state would ban people from the right to have a religion. If the state does not have a religion, that is the state's business. But if the state wants to ban people from having a religion, that's another matter. The state does not have the right to force people not to have a religion.

Another matter, which made things worse, was the government's use of the word "facultative" in referring to religion lessons in schools. It meant there is no obligation for a student to attend religion lessons.

There were two interpretations. The government said the school director decides whether religion lessons are to be taught. From the Church's point of view, only parents and students should decide. I met with the education minister to discuss this matter five times to try to find a solution.

But in February 2005, the ministry issued a letter saying, first, that each school director should decide if religion would be included in the school's regular curriculum or not. So if the school director liked the Church, he or she could include religion lessons.

Second, the letter stated that if religion is included, it should not be taught during important lesson hours. Third, the letter stated that the government would not pay for religion teachers. This would be the responsibility of parents and the Church.

And fourth, marks earned for the religion subject would not be used in determining whether students passed the national exam. The letter also surprised the national parliament, but until now no one knows who was behind it.

What do you feel is your mission as bishop?

What I understand is that my mission is to spread the Bible to the world, to be a shepherd and follow the path of Jesus, for those who follow Jesus will have eternal life with him in heaven. Whether or not I deserve this position as bishop is not my concern -- only God can judge.

However, sometimes I do not understand what my mission as a bishop is. I often question this, and then I look into myself.

Why did you become a priest?

As a child, I dreamed of becoming a cowboy after I watched an American cowboy movie. But after I got a little older, I wanted to be a doctor. Then I met a Syrian priest, (Father) Manuel Luis, I started to love the idea of becoming a priest. This priest inspired me because I saw him talking to many people and visiting houses. So I hoped one day to be like him.

Afterwards, I discovered being a priest or bishop is not easy. It is full of challenges and responsibilities. My responsibility is to my people and God.

What are your hopes for East Timor?

There are always good things to be learned from a difficult situation. Something that I have always kept in my mind since I was young is that when I asked for milk in the milking pan, my mother told me, "If you want to drink milk, you must work to get it."

These words oriented my life -- that there is nothing you can get gratis. You have to work and work harder, and it takes time to achieve your objective. So to get peace, this country has to sacrifice.

Now we are learning to sacrifice to be able to attain stability. If we want to live in a peaceful, prosperous country, we need to struggle. From our experiences, we are conscious that everything is not easy to attain. Maybe we need to try another way.

I have a big hope that East Timor will one day become a prosperous country where all people live in peace.


(Accompanying photos available with the UCAN Photo Service. Use story code ET03552.1469 or a person's name to search for related photos.)

Related UCAN Reports

EAST TIMOR Following Violence In Baucau, Church Offers Youths Peace Training (October 15, 2007)

EAST TIMOR Dili Bishop Says Church Open To Working With Prime Minister Gusmao (August 10, 2007)

EAST TIMOR Prime Minister Asks Church To Be Mediator Between Government And Rebels (March 14, 2007)

Back to November menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu