Subject: TA: Church on a tightrope of neutrality in E. Timor
Date: Fri, 27 Aug 1999 16:00:06 EDT

The Australian 28 August 99

Church on a tightrope of neutrality

>From SIAN POWELL in Dili

NUNS were out in the streets helping the wounded after Dili descended into chaos on Thursday and priests gave sanctuary to the fleeing in their compounds.

For too long, the Catholic Church workers of East Timor have dealt with the miseries of a people oppressed and yet this succour has in recent months been seen as evidence that the church is not neutral; that it favours independence for East Timor.

The pro-autonomy groups, who want East Timor to stay with Indonesia, have roundly criticised the church as biased. "We are all Catholics," said one pro-autonomy spokesman, Mario Vieira, "the church should be neutral".

Father Rolando, a Salesian priest, said yesterday that his order had given sanctuary to many people in their compound in recent months, including one young boy who was laid flat on his back while booted militia members jumped on his prone body. He still has a large blood clot in his chest.

Father Rolando said that if the Church were biased, it was only biased in favour of people in trouble. "They are the oppressed, the Church has always taken the part of the oppressed."

Yet Nobel laureate Carlos Ximenes Belo's opinion piece in the New York Times earlier this week was one of the church's most strongly worded condemnations of Indonesia since the brutality began 24 years ago.

"All along I have made it clear that the church is there for everyone and is not to be used by any political faction," he wrote. "Yet I have concluded that only international pressure on Indonesia's army can end the violence."

He went even further – calling for sanctions unless the military cut short its reign of terror and saying Indonesia had to allow international peacekeepers into East Timor.

It was a rare swipe at Indonesia. The East Timorese Catholic Church has been treading a fine line for a decade, caught between Indonesian sensibilities on the one hand and real humanitarian concerns regarding the welfare of the East Timorese people on the other.

There are more than 5 million Indonesian Catholics and whenever Bishop Belo reproaches Indonesia, the word is that he is hauled into line. The official line from Rome has been "softly, softly", said one East Timorese Catholic, although East Timor reports directly to Rome, rather than being part of the Indonesian church.

When the Pope visited East Timor in 1989 he didn't kiss the ground, because it was thought Indonesia might find it insulting.

The Jakarta-based pro-nuncio had strongly urged that the Pope celebrate mass in East Timor in Indonesian, even though the liturgy has been in the local language of Tetum for more than a decade. It was only when East Timorese priests and religious heard "Ami aman" (Our Father in Tetum) they that could heave a sigh of relief.

Father Rolando dismisses critics who suggest the Vatican has not been tough enough. "The Pope has always shown his interest in East Timor," he said, suggesting that papal diplomacy was not always a public matter.

Regardless of the official Vatican line, the pro-autonomy movement's criticisms contain an element of truth – a few priests openly support the National Council for East Timorese Resistance (CNRT), the peak independence group.

One, Father Domingo Soares from Ermera, is known as Padre Maubere to the East Timorese people, which loosely translates as the father of the resistance. He is an active member of the CNRT and can often be seen in the council's Dili headquarters.

About one-third of the priests in East Timor, though, are Indonesian, and East Timorese Catholics believe many quietly support autonomy.

A spokesman for the pro-autonomy Forum for Unity, Democracy and Justice, Mario Vieira, said he was concerned by the church's bias. "We have stated all our concerns, this is not acceptable by the Vatican," he said.

"Pro-autonomy groups are also Catholic. The church must be neutral. Most of those priests are in favour of independence. We have so many complaints from our followers. It's another provocation, it can make a new conflict between those groups."

Mr Vieira said one of the outward indications of the church's partiality had been the practice, in a few parishes, of charging pro-autonomy parishioners more for baptism certificates – that were required for registration – than those in the pro-independence flock. The Church flatly, and furiously, denied the allegation.

Yet even the Indonesian Defence Minister, General Wiranto, reportedly bought into the argument, criticising the Catholic Church for favouring independence supporters.

Father Rolando, though, said that regardless of politics, the East Timorese people saw the church as their defender: "The church is the church of the struggle".

The East Timorese Catholic Church has been the success story of Asia. Church statistics record that in 1970, most people were animists. Less than one-third were Catholics. This was a foreign church, which ran most of the few schools, and was the principal way of transmitting Portuguese culture.

Now more than nine in 10 East Timorese are Catholic – perhaps because the church has been the only East Timorese institution for more than two decades, the only institution not wholly run by Indonesia.

Back to August Menu
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu