Subject: Bishop Belo: the man who dared to say no to Suharto

Bishop Belo: the man who dared to say no to Suharto

DILI, East Timor, Oct 6 (AFP) - Bishop Carlos Belo, who arrived here on Wednesday to a hero's welcome, owes his standing to his role as a protector of his homeland in the face of Indonesia's often brutal rule.

It is a role that has often put the stocky 51-year-old at odds with the church hierarchy. But it has earned him unrivalled respect and affection from the East Timorese, whose Roman Catholic faith has been a pillar of their resistance to rule from Jakarta.

A Nobel peace prize winner in 1996, Belo has spent most of the last 16 years under virtually constant surveillance, and at times threat, from the Indonesia's security forces.

And he is one of the few people who ever dared to say no to Suharto, the autocrat who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist until last year, in public.

When then President Suharto visited East Timor in October 1996, Belo pointedly refused to bless a huge statue of Christ which the Indonesian authorities had ordered to be built above Dili.

It was an act of defiance that was typical of Belo's style, and also one that some analysts have identified as one of the early cracks in Suharto's rule.

The risk to Belo's life became too great last month when pro-independence militias laid siege to his Dili residence, where more than 2,000 terrified people had taken refuge.

After first being taken to Baucau by helicopter, the bishop was forced to disguise himself as a civilian and join an evacuation of aid workers to Darwin after the UN compound there was sprayed with automatic gunfire in a three-hour siege by militias.

Appointed East Timor's apostolic adminstrator in 1983, Belo was studying for the priesthood in Lisbon when his homeland was invaded then annexed by Indonesia in 1975-76.

By the time he returned in 1982, the church here, a deeply conservative organisation which had seen its influence decline in the final days of Portuguese rule, had been revived and transformed into a focus of resistance to Jakarta's harsh administration.

Seen as a pawn of the church hierarchy, Belo was initially shunned by the territory's radicalised priests, some of whom refused to attend his inauguration.

But he quickly proved he would not remain silent over military abuses, publicising massacres and kidnappings of East Timorese.

Five months after taking office he delivered his first sermon criticising the military and in March 1985 he incurred the wrath of Suharto by publishing a list of victims of a notorious massacre at Kraras.

Despite his efforts, Belo never completely succeeded in completely winning over the Catholic church hierarchy to the cause of East Timor's independence.

When the Vatican announced the Pope's intention to visit the territory in 1989, many local priests were furious about a move they believed implied recognition of Indonesian rule.

Belo, as so often, had to play the role of conciliator -- persuading the Vatican that the Pope should say mass in Latin rather than the Indonesian language, and meet with a group of local pro-independence priests.

The price of his action was an intensification of Indonesian repression which culminated in November 1989 with troops forcibly entering his Dili residence to remove 20 students who had taken refuge there.

But the bishop's political adroitness ensured that the Pope's visit kept the cause of independence alive rather than serving as a further step towards permanent integration with Indonesia.

Those political skills came to the fore again this year when, in a series of meetings with President B.J. Habibie, he helped persuade Indonesia's new ruler that the country had nothing to gain by clinging on to East Timor indefinitely.

The result was an offer of autonomy that the East Timorese massively rejected on August 30, paving the way for indepedence.

Born in Baucau on February 3, 1948, Belo is the son of a teacher and the fifth of six children.

Despite his ready smile, people who know him say he has a sharp tongue in private and can be unpredictable.

While he courts journalists when it suits his purposes, he appears to harbour a deep suspicion of the press.

A fan of basketball and a keen table tennis player, Belo relaxes by listening to Bach and Handel -- as well as the odd bit of Julio Iglesias.


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