From Passivity to Political Resource: The Catholic Church and Nationalism in East Timor (abridged version)

Chris Lundry
Department of Political Science
Arizona State University

Spring 2000

(Not to be cited or duplicated without permission of author. Full text, including citations, available by request to the author:

The wave of political and economic turmoil sweeping Southeast Asia, beginning with the devaluation of the Thai baht in July 1997 and leading to the ousters of Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Indonesia's President Suharto in 1998, has focused attention on the region more than at any other time since the Vietnam War. Questions that have remained below the surface for decades, such as the extent of religious, ethnic and political conflicts within Indonesia and the fate of surviving Khmer Rouge members in Cambodia, are receiving attention in the media, and in some cases steps are being taken toward their resolution. One such conflict, often justified in realpolitik terms or deemed insignificant and ignored altogether, is Indonesia's involvement in East Timor. Governments that could have acted to stop the unfolding tragedy from the late 1970s to the 1990s did not, their complicity justified by their relationships to the Suharto regime and the economic and political benefits that came with it. When Suharto abdicated in May 1998, his successor B.J. Habibie took the reins of a state faced with a myriad of problems, not the least of which was the fate of East Timor. Yet Habibie's approach differed from Suharto's, and after negotiations were completed in May of 1999 a referendum to decide the territory's future was held on August 30.[1] Much of the credit for providing a context for Jakarta's reassessment must go to the Roman Catholic Church of East Timor, as the church has not only provided a safe haven (where possible) against the depredations of the Indonesian army (TNI) [2] but has also been a major source of reliable information about human rights abuses.

Despite the importance of the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor, little has been written about church-state relations in the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion. Thus, following a brief introductory overview of the East Timor conflict, this chapter examines the political role of the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor. In sections two and three it summarizes the origins and development of the church in East Timor, briefly touching on the impact of Vatican II, and then discusses the reactions of different church leaders to the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, noting how the stature of church leaders grew as they worked to protect the population. Section four details the activities of the Catholic Church under occupation, and section five discusses strategies employed by the Indonesian government and TNI to undermine church institutions and discredit church officials. Next is a brief summary of events surrounding the referendum and its aftermath. The conclusion includes a discussion of the implications of these findings. Concurrent with José Casanova's findings regarding the "deprivatization" of religion, especially within the Polish context as well as that of the Philippines, the church in East Timor is decidedly "public" and will remain so. [3]

A significant transformation occurred within the church soon after the Indonesian invasion. The inculturation or "Timorization" of the church took place, and the church became the only tolerated public representation of civil society. This in turn contributed to the birth of Timorese nationalism. Increasingly the church acted as a refuge for those persecuted by TNI and as a source of information about atrocities committed against the Timorese following an Indonesian media blackout, the former fulfilling a traditional role, and the latter representing work more closely associated with that of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The church, as an institution, played an instrumental role in the birth of nationalism, and this role has firmly established the church in East Timor as a "public" church and will influence the development of East Timor from nation to nation-state.

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Background of the Conflict

After some conflict between t+he Dutch and Portuguese over possession of the island, Timor was formally divided in half in 1915 with the signing of the Senteca Arbitral; the Dutch controlled the western half (closest to the rest of the Dutch East Indies) and the Portuguese controlled the eastern half along with the enclave of Oecusse. Although the Netherlands lost control of the East Indies, including West Timor, in 1949 when Indonesia became independent, Portugal maintained its colonial grip on the eastern half of Timor. Nevertheless, Portuguese influence in East Timor during the colonial period was minimal in comparison with nearby colonies. The Portuguese were primarily interested in sandalwood extraction and the export of coffee, and, later, copra. They built few roads (only about 20 kilometers, centered around the capital city Dili, a seaport), leaving the population isolated during the rainy season. A few Catholic missionaries accompanying the Portuguese occupation established several schools and converted a modest percentage (about 25%) of the mostly animist population.

Portugal began severing its colonial ties in July 1974, following the relatively peaceful revolution "of the carnations" (so named because student protesters placed carnations in soldiers' gun barrels) that brought a left-wing government to power. East Timor began a move toward independence, although Portugal maintained a small presence, and three major political parties formed: the Timorese Popular Democratic Association (APODETI); the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT); and the Association of Timorese Social Democrats (ASDT), which later became the Revolutionary Front for Independent East Timor (FRETILIN). APODETI favored integration with Indonesia, UDT originally favored ties with Portugal, but later became pro?independence, and FRETILIN favored independence following a brief transitional period of decolonization. APODETI was by far the smallest party, consisting of only a few hundred members, mostly landowners with strong economic ties to the Indonesian government. UDT and FRETILIN, both with larger and more diverse memberships, quickly joined forces and worked for independence upon realizing that their goals had become convergent, but they were subsequently set against one another by Indonesian machinations.

Indonesia closely monitored the increasing political activity in East Timor, as did the United States and Australia, and decided that the destabilization of East Timor would help justify an invasion, although at this point Indonesia had very little to fear. There were but two potential concerns for Indonesia regarding East Timor's independence: the possibility of a power vacuum that could have welcomed outside intervention from communist countries or others unfriendly to Indonesia; and/or the possibility that an independent East Timor might serve as an example to separatist movements in other areas of Indonesia, such as Irian Jaya. These reasons are considered unfounded as well as unrealistic, giving rise to the notion that Indonesia's invasion was primarily for economic reasons.

Soon the Indonesian government split the two pro-independence parties by starting false rumors among UDT members about FRETILIN, such as purported meetings with North Vietnamese in East Timor, and of a planned FRETILIN assault. The result was a brief civil war between FRETILIN and UDT in August of 1975. The remaining Portuguese fled East Timor, and, despite Indonesia's backing of UDT, FRETILIN won with relatively few casualties on either side. FRETILIN set up a de facto government, and began infrastructure projects such as the construction of schools and government offices. Following Indonesian military border incursions, and knowing that an invasion loomed, FRETILIN declared independence unilaterally on November 28, 1975, in the hopes of receiving international recognition.
On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor. Jakarta's justification for the invasion was based in part on the July 17, 1975, Balibo declaration (reportedly signed by members of the UDT and APODETI, who controlled a combined popular support of around 15-25%), which called for integration of East Timor with Indonesia.[4] Approximately 60,000 East Timorese were killed within the first two months of fighting, followed over the next several years by another 140,000, representing one-third of East Timor's population. The Indonesian government reported a figure of between 15,000 and 50,000 deaths resulting from the civil war and not the Indonesian invasion. While Jakarta still claims a death toll of 50,000, most independent analysts give that number little credibility, noting that the figure of 200,000 reflects more accurate church census data.

FRETILIN was driven into the mountains. Indonesian military occupation ensued, creating a climate of terror that included intense aerial bombardments, the deployment of death squads, and the use of random killings and rape to cow the population. TNI created networks of East Timorese informers, and at one point during military actions against FRETILIN, in a campaign dubbed pagar bentis (fence of legs), forced a reported 80,000 civilians between the ages of eight and 50 to walk in front of soldiers as human shields in an effort to ferret out guerrillas hiding in the forest and veldt. Hundreds were killed and "innumerable" others died of starvation. Hundreds and perhaps thousands "disappeared," while others received lengthy prison sentences handed down by kangaroo courts. In addition, military occupation resulted in widespread environmental degradation, the resettlement of large segments of the population without adequate provisions for employment, and the payment of sub-standard wages to East Timorese workers. The continuous nature of TNI's abuses was underscored in a report by the National Council of Maubere Resistance (CNRM) [5] that stated the human rights situation in early 1996 was the worst that it has been since the Dili massacre in late 1991.

Following the occupation the Indonesian government used its transmigration program (transmigrasi) to move citizens from over-crowded islands such as Java to East Timor. This strategy diluted the East Timorese population.[6] However, transmigrants were not the only people moving to East Timor. "Spontaneous" or "voluntary" migration took place as well, by people from all over Indonesia. An estimated 25,000 heads of families migrated to East Timor in 1989 alone, and in 1992 it was estimated that 100,000 Indonesians were living in East Timor, out of a total population of 750,000. Along with transmigrasi, the government implemented its five-tiered development plan, including agriculture, health, education, communications, and government apparatus.

For over twenty years, Indonesia occupied East Timor and created a climate of terror. Foreign journalists were either barred from entry into East Timor, or closely monitored. A huge military presence was widely visible in East Timor, with estimates totaling around 20,000 during the voting process, a higher soldier-to-civilian ratio than anywhere else in Indonesia. On the few occasions that diplomats or observers were let into East Timor during the Suharto era, soldiers disguised themselves as civilians, and coerced the indigenous population into showing approval of the occupation. Occasional violence flared up, such as the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre of over 200 mourning and demonstrating civilians on November 12, 1991.

The United Nations never recognized Indonesia's claim to East Timor, and passed ten resolutions upholding the right of the East Timorese to self-determination. Yet very little was done, especially by the major powers, to alleviate the suffering inflicted on the East Timorese by the Indonesian occupation. Not all stood by silently, however. Increasingly, the Roman Catholic Church of East Timor spoke out against the abuses of Indonesian military occupation and risked persecution by providing sanctuary to East Timorese. In standing up for the East Timorese, the church unwittingly sowed the seeds of nationalism.

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Background of the Catholic Church in East Timor

In order to understand the significance of the transformation of the East Timorese Catholic Church, it is necessary to review its background. Portuguese Dominicans were the first to land on the island of Timor, coming from the Moluccas in 1562. In line with doctrine at the time, the church attempted to convert the animist Timorese, although the scope of the missionaries' reach was limited in the early period. Schools were built by Salesian priests and Dominican and Claretian nuns, but education was not widespread, and was confined mostly to suco chiefs and liurai (village leaders) who were baptized and educated; an important byproduct of this process was to consolidate the chiefs' and liurai's authority. From 1834 to 1875, missionaries were banned in East Timor in conjunction with a state ban on their activities imposed by the Liberals in Lisbon, and again for a decade starting in 1910 with the declaration of the Republic.

In 1940 President Antonio Oliveira Salazar signed a concordat with Rome, signaling a closer link between the church and the Portuguese government. The Concordat declared the "imperial usefulness" and "civilizing influence" of the Catholic missions operated by the Portuguese. The Concordat established the Diocese of Dili, thereby ending the subordination of the church in East Timor to the See of Macao, and resulted in a skyrocketing of the conversion rate. Education in the Portuguese colonies was entrusted to the Roman Catholic Church under the tutelage of the state, and Timorese children were socialized with colonial values as a byproduct of their education. The Jesuit seminary of Nossa Senhora de Fatima was opened in Dare in 1958 to create a native clergy and to offer secondary education for young men not destined for the priesthood.

The Second Universal Council (Vatican II, 1962-65) recommended a re-examination of church-state alignments and enjoined priests and nuns everywhere to make social justice issues part of the "call to evangelization." However, the impact of Vatican II -- at least initially -- was limited in East Timor. Education remained in the hands of what was essentially a conservative church, although there were signs that some Jesuits had already begun to teach about Asian nationalism and alternative methods of development by the mid-1960s. The Jesuits also criticized Portuguese colonialism, not in a revolutionary manner but based on the social teachings of the church. As Geoffrey Hull notes, "discrepancies between Salazar's corporatist state and the principles of a corporative society set out by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno were... common subjects of discussion in church circles in Portugal." That the impact of Vatican II's teachings was hardly felt in East Timor is consistent with findings from Latin America, a region where the Roman Catholic Church is generally considered to be more socially conscious and politically active. For example, Anthony Gill notes that "if all Latin American bishops were exposed to the progressive ideas of Vatican II... then change should have occurred uniformly across the region. This was hardly the case." Bishops predisposed to denouncing injustice found that the reforms gave them leeway to pursue their goals; bishops not so inclined "could simply drag their feet or ignore the Council's recommendations altogether."

Following Vatican II, the church in East Timor remained "at heart a foreign church" and the clergy conservative; they remain so to some degree to this day. Before the invasion, priests were aloof and disdainful of rural Timorese. The church was identified with the state and the clergy was charged with implementing government policies. Even today, East Timorese priests and nuns "wear full religious dress, the traditional catechism is taught, people are trained to behave reverently in church, and such innovations as Communion in the hand, lay ministers of the Eucharist and general absolutions are unknown and unwanted." Despite the liturgical conservatism, however, the social role of the clergy has changed dramatically since Vatican II and, especially, in the aftermath of the Indonesian invasion. With the isolation of the church that accompanied the early years of the occupation, priests found themselves identifying with the persecuted Timorese and becoming more engaged socially and politically. Soon the Catholic priests came to be viewed as the leaders of their communities. Preaching and catechism were conducted in Portuguese; to become Christian and to become culturally Portuguese were in effect the same thing.

In the late 1960s, a Catholic newspaper emerged called Seara. Since it was a Church publication, it stood outside of the normal censorship laws and gave voice to emerging Catholic and Muslim nationalists such as Jose Ramos Horta, Nicolau Lobatau, and Mari Alkatiri, all of whom were taught at the seminary in Dare. The paper regularly taught Tetum, the lingua franca of East Timor, and ran articles about social concerns. The Policia Internacional de Defesa do Estado, the Portuguese secret police force, closed the paper in 1973 when the articles turned increasingly political. Still, the paper had allowed a group of nationalists, some of whom had seen movements in Portugal's African colonies during terms of exile, to meet clandestinely. Many of these nationalists went on to play prominent roles in the political parties that formed in the interregnum of 1974-75. All overt non-integrationist politics halted, however, with the Indonesian invasion.

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The Reaction of East Timorese Church Leaders

Bishop Dom José Joaquim Riberio was the head of the church in East Timor during the invasion. Amendments to the Portuguese Constitution that preceded the 1974 revolution in Lisbon foretold of the fragility of the relationship between Portugal and its African colonies and, ultimately, East Timor. Riberio responded to the overthrow of the Salazar regime in a pastoral letter, "Regarding the New Situation," issued on January 25, 1974. He asserted the church's willingness to adapt to the times:

All priests and missionary personnel are glad to see new opportunities opening up. The Church is aware of the social and political conditions affecting the life of the people. Times are different for the Church as well as the people... The Bishop and the priests are looking forward towards the future: we want a Timor that is progressive, just, peaceful and Catholic.

As parties formed in East Timor after the 1974 revolution, Riberio warned his congregation in a thinly veiled attack on FRETILIN that a vote for communism was a vote against God, even though FRETILIN did not espouse communist ideology, and most of the FRETILIN leadership had received their education at Dare and were practicing Catholics.

Again in March 1975 Riberio told a delegation from the Australian Parliament of his apprehension about communism, and warned that although the people of East Timor were anti-communist, influences from overseas were affecting politics in East Timor. "Dialogue is alright at the European level of culture," he stated, "but not here where the people are not sophisticated." As relations between UDT and FRETILIN deteriorated later in 1975, Riberio allegedly told a group of UDT leaders that North Vietnamese communists had landed in East Timor to train FRETILIN. Although untrue, which the Indonesian government knew, Bishop Riberio's assertion was treated as authoritative and circulated in Indonesia's controlled press. What troubled Riberio was FRETILIN's advocacy of a separation between church and state, which would end the privileged role of the Catholic Church in East Timor, and thus it was not difficult for him to believe that FRETILIN was infiltrated by communists.

Yet in 1977, Riberio stepped down after suffering a breakdown, reportedly caused by witnessing Indonesian army brutalities. His successor, East Timor-born Bishop Martinho da Costa Lopes, said of Riberio:

Oh, poor man, he could not cope at all. The whole situation was more than he could bear. All he did was cry -- cry every time he heard about what the Indonesians were doing. He just cried and cried. Also, you must not forget, he is Portuguese, and it wounded his feelings very deeply to see the Indonesians pull down Portuguese flags and trample on everything Portuguese. So he asked the Vatican to allow him to resign... He is now living in Portugal and he is a very sick man.

Lopes was appointed as Apostolic Administrator instead of bishop making him accountable directly to Rome, as there was no connection between the East Timorese Catholic Church and the Indonesian Bishop's Conference (IBC). The Vatican's stance was cautious, and interpreted as not supportive of Indonesian rule. The Vatican considered East Timor a disputed territory. Since the East Timorese Catholic Church was independent from the IBC and therefore Indonesian control, it was able to monitor atrocities and distribute information with little Indonesian hindrance. Furthermore it allowed the church to become "a major challenge to Indonesia's moral authority and the main impediment to integration."
Initially, Lopes was reluctant to speak out publicly about the atrocities in East Timor, although he spoke in private with the Indonesian military leaders. [7] After his pleas were ignored, however, he turned to outspoken criticism in 1981, first in sermons then in the form of letters smuggled out of the country. Within East Timor he established a network among church sources for gathering information about TNI's actions that provided a detailed picture of the military abuses.

On January 11, 1982, Lopes published a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald condemning a massacre of at least 500 East Timorese at the shrine of St. Anthony's Rock, near Lacluta. Lopes' letter was followed by reports from "Church sources" that half of East Timor's population faced serious food shortages. The letter sent a shock wave through the Australian public, and, by implication, criticized Australia for its inaction. Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, in an attempt to discredit the Bishop and defend his much-criticized stance on East Timor, was subsequently flown to Dili by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Indonesian think?tank with links to the Indonesian military headed at that time by General Ali Moertopo. With an Australian reporter in tow, Whitlam was given a sanitized tour to show that the situation was not as Lopes described, prompting Whitlam to state that he could not understand why Lopes "perpetrated this wicked act and sent this cruel letter." Whitlam's "one?sided slanging match" was echoed by the reporter.

Lopes came under increasing pressure from the Indonesian government and the Pro Nuncio in Jakarta, especially after his outspoken criticism of the pagar bentis campaign. He was also pressured by the Vatican, which was hesitant to make waves in East Timor for fear of consequences in Indonesia. Although members of the Catholic Church in Indonesia represent a small minority (around three percent of the population), they are a powerful constituency. The Vatican was concerned that they might come under threat, and it also expressed concern that since most of the aid going to East Timor at this time came through Catholic relief agencies, criticism might endanger their operations. The Vatican sought a practical middle path. Lopes summarized his view of the Vatican's stance: "It was a great dream at the Vatican to expand the Catholic Church in Indonesia… The little ones are being sacrificed for big interests." He resigned on May 16, 1983, returned to Lisbon, and almost immediately began a world tour speaking about the injustice in East Timor.

Lopes was succeeded by Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, who was also appointed as Apostolic Administrator. Belo received a cool reception at first, and was branded at his installation by a group of priests as a "Vatican-appointed puppet of the Indonesians."[8] The apprehension of the Timorese priests was based on the fact that Belo was educated in Europe and had not been in Timor since before the invasion. As Belo became aware of the situation (after just fifteen days he gave an estimate of the strength of the FRETILIN force to a priest in Jakarta), he began to speak out as Lopes had done, and his image changed. No longer was he viewed as pro-Jakarta, and no longer did he believe that peace was coming to East Timor. Increasingly Belo began gathering data and making independent judgments.
When the IBC asked Belo in 1983 to consider the integration of the enclave of Oecusse with West Timor, he went there and determined that the people of Oecusse considered themselves East Timorese and wished to remain separate from West Timor, which he reported back to the Pro Nuncio in Jakarta as grounds for the enclave remaining East Timorese. In 1986 Belo withdrew his priests from Pancasila indoctrination sessions in protest of the beating of several priests, and he also convinced the IBC to write a letter reaffirming its neutrality on the question of the integration of East Timor with Indonesia. In 1988, he was promoted to bishop by the Vatican.[9] A year later he wrote to the UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar in favor of an act of self-determination, stating that the people of East Timor were "dying as a people and as a nation."

Later that year, the Pope included East Timor as a stop during his visit to Indonesia. A demonstration erupted after the Papal mass, and forty demonstrators were given refuge by Belo at his residence. The demonstrators were subsequently violently removed from his residence and subjected to torture, amidst the protests of Belo.

Belo's activism resulted in two assassination attempts, one in 1989 and another in 1991. His statements condemning TNI's actions during the 1991 Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre likewise put him under considerable duress. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, and in 1996 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with José Ramos Horta. His courage has been called "an inspiration for many Timorese" and "a living affirmation of the solidarity between church and people... Belo, like (newly-elected president) Xanana (Gusmão), is essential to any long?term settlement in East Timor." In the aftermath of the referendum, Belo became a target for the militia, his residence was destroyed, and he fled to Australia for refuge. He has since returned to East Timor, and has continued to openly criticize the Indonesian military commanders in a call for a human rights tribunal.

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The Functions of the Church

Although the roles of both Lopes and Belo were crucial in galvanizing the resistance, providing relief and disseminating information, their work would have been impossible were it not for a sympathetic clergy. Perhaps the single most important factor in the development of nationalism in East Timor was the inculturation of the clergy. The departure of Portuguese church officials from East Timor during the brief civil war and the Indonesian invasion fostered the "Timorization" of the clergy left behind. Moreover, according to Carmel Budiardjo and Liem Soei Liong, the Portuguese clergy that remained fled with the majority of the population to the mountains:

The withdrawal of the religious and the retreat of the Portuguese colonial administration shattered the old system into which the Church had so snugly fitted. The disintegration of the Portuguese Catholic Church in East Timor accelerated the transformation of the Church into a national church.

The Timorese people felt betrayed by their departure, but it strengthened the position of the clergy who remained, who forgot their earlier antagonism toward FRETILIN and "came to see them as the only champions of the Maubere." Most of the indigenous Timorese clergy went to school at the seminary at Dare alongside those who became the leaders of FRETILIN. Clergy brought down from the mountains by TNI spoke out against the invasion and in favor of FRETELIN. A further step toward inculturation was the Vatican's allowance of Tetum to be used as the liturgical language, thereby circumventing the Indonesian ban on Portuguese. [10]

While in the mountains with FRETILIN, the clergy converted large numbers of Timorese. This was not FRETILIN policy, but was not condemned either. Conversion to Roman Catholicism skyrocketed and is estimated at over 95% (at least nominally [11]) today for several reasons. First, under Indonesian law, one must belong to one of five officially recognized religions -- Christianity (Protestantism), Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism or Islam -- and thus the animists of East Timor, representing a vast majority of the population, were considered godless (atheism is often equated with communism in Indonesia). Second, under the severe persecution of the occupying Indonesian army, the Catholic Church was a place of refuge. Third, there was a certain prestige attached to being a member of the church. Fourth, the Catholic Church allowed the East Timorese to congregate in large numbers and to speak their native language, and the iconography of Catholicism substituted for that of their animist beliefs. Finally, the church was viewed by East Timorese in the mountains "as a place of resistance."

Along with providing refuge for those under duress from the Indonesians, the church distributed aid. Belo allowed demonstrators from the Pope's visit and the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre to stay at his residence. When the demonstrators were either forcibly removed or turned over to the authorities, as indicated above, Belo made an agreement with the military that allowed him to visit them to ensure that they would be treated humanely (often they were not) and publicized their names to draw attention to their plight and lessen their risk of death while imprisoned. The church was the only institution to escape severe persecution after the invasion and has also provided assistance to thousands of widowed and orphaned victims of the conflict.

The church was the main distributor of foreign aid that came in the wake of mass starvation in the early years of the war. Often this aid, although donated from international sources such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), had to be bought from the Indonesians. The aid from CRS, however, was criticized by the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA). The ACFOA charged that CRS was serving as "an extension of American foreign policy the purpose of which is to secure and complete the takeover of an unwilling East Timor." Although CRS was praised for saving many lives, its modus operandi drew criticism. CRS only worked through the Indonesian government as opposed to the local church, and focused primarily on resettlement areas created by TNI as part of its population control exercise. The ACFOA argued that the sites could not become self-sufficient and that the CRS aid was only deepening the structure of dependence. Still, without CRS aid there is no doubt the death toll would have been higher.

Apart from scattered accounts of refugees and the occasional reports of individuals who managed to get in and out of the territory, the church was the main source of information for the outside world, often through letters smuggled out by clergy. The network established by Lopes continued under Belo's tutelage. The arrangement with the Vatican ensured that:

throughout the occupation the Catholic Church was the only local institution that communicated independently with the outside world, maintained institutional connections with an international structure, and therefore could guard for itself a certain independence from the Indonesian authorities.

The church provided reliable information about the names and numbers of victims of TNI's torture and abuses. The extent of information gathering, suggesting an extensive and complex network, is evident in the number of citations attributed to church sources in reports on East Timor since the mid-1970s.
Lopes, and subsequently Belo, along with the Council of Catholic Priests in East Timor, resisted calls for integration with the IBC. Instead, they pressured the IBC to join them in condemning the Indonesian occupation and defending the right of the East Timorese to self-determination. Their pleas fell on deaf ears until 1988, when the Pro Nuncio in Jakarta wrote a letter of solidarity to Belo expressing his support and understanding for why the East Timorese wanted to remain separate. The Catholic Bishop's Conference of the United States (USCBC) also issued statements criticizing the Indonesian government's intimidation of the East Timorese Roman Catholic Church.

East Timorese church officials, supported by the USCBC and others, vehemently protested the Indonesian family planning program. In 1985, the Indonesian press reported that 31.7% of "productive couples" were administered depo provera. Often women receiving birth control were not told about potential side effects, and sometimes were not even told that they were receiving birth control. Similarly, there were reports of women being sterilized via tubal ligation while under anesthesia and without their knowledge. Other reports indicated that some pregnant women were forced to abort, and birth control was administered to girls as young as age twelve. Women who reported problems associated with the birth control often had few choices; Indonesian doctors charged for visits that most East Timorese could not afford to pay. Government birth control practices spread fear among East Timorese women, and they no longer felt safe visiting state clinics. Instead they grew to trust only church clinics. [12]

The Roman Catholic Church in East Timor played a key role in protecting the East Timorese population from the abuses of TNI, and in so doing contributed significantly to the creation of a national movement advocating independence. In February of 1999, Constancio Pinto, the United Nations representative for the CNRT asserted that the East Timorese "survived... because of our faith" and maintained that "if it had not been for the Roman Catholic Church, the resistance would have collapsed."

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Indonesian Strategy for Dealing with the Church

According to (then) Major Prabowo, a former officer in East Timor and son in law of former president Suharto, "The Church, the religious and the priests are the three factors which threaten East Timor's integration with Indonesia." Prabowo went on to say that "the people must turn against" the Catholic Church if Indonesia is to succeed in East Timor. The Indonesians pursued several strategies for dealing with the increasingly influential church: co-option; discrediting Catholicism; "Indonesianization" of the clergy and population; vandalism; and Islamization.

In an attempt to co-opt the Catholic education system, school teachers were offered triple their wages to abandon their positions at Catholic schools for teaching at Indonesian state?run schools. The offer was tempting because Catholic schools in East Timor received no state funds, and what support they did receive from overseas Catholic development agencies was channeled through Indonesian Catholic social institutes. Another co-option attempt was revealed in a pamphlet published by TNI that detailed procedures for torture in East Timor and suggested taking pictures of prisoners and soldiers together in the following manner:

It is better to make attractive photographs, such as shots taken while eating together with the prisoner, or shaking hands with those that have just come down from the bush, showing them in front of a house, and so on. If such photos are circulated in the bush, this is classic way of assuredly undermining their morale and fighting spirits. And if such photos are shown to the priests, this can draw the church into supporting operations to restore security (emphasis mine).

As part of the campaign to discredit the church, Lopes and Belo were demonized in the Indonesian press.[13] In 1984, TNI accused the East Timorese church of being infiltrated by Marxists. Swedish journalist Terja Svabo was allowed into East Timor in 1987, but not allowed to interview priests. Two Jesuits who argued against integration were forced to resign, and condemned by the IBC.

The Indonesianization campaign took root on June 24, 1982 when Foreign Minister Mochtar stated that the Indonesian government would progressively replace foreign missionaries serving in East Timor with Indonesians. However, East Timorese showed a willingness to travel great distances in order to receive sacraments from Timorese priests and in general rejected Indonesian priests. Most Indonesian priests were pro-integration, considered colonizers, and not trusted. Some Indonesian priests were suspected of being members of the "respected citizens and local leaders" groups that bolstered Indonesian control over their communities and "nurtured" members of the pro-Indonesia East Timorese paramilitary teams. The government appeared to foster the Indonesianization of East Timor via the Protestant churches of Indonesia. The Protestant churches, for example, always favored integration, perhaps seeing the region as fertile ground for conversions, and successfully blocked the World Council of Churches when it tried to issue a statement condemning the Indonesian invasion. Indonesianization was likewise helped by Jakarta's transmigrasi program, mentioned earlier, whereby tens of thousands of Indonesians were moved to East Timor with the results of dilution of the indigenous population, suffocation of Timorese culture and massive unemployment of the indigenous population (45% in 1995).

The mass-conversion to Catholicism created animosity between the mostly-Moslem Indonesian occupiers and the Catholic East Timorese that occasionally flared into violence. [14] One case involved two plainclothes Indonesian soldiers who attended a Catholic mass and received communion, only to spit out the Eucharist and stomp on it. A fight ensued, and eleven East Timorese were taken into custody. In July 1998, while accompanying a group of diplomats to a meeting at the Dili cathedral with the Bishop of Baucau, Basilio dos Nasciemento, Indonesian soldiers angered East Timorese by attempting to carry arms onto the cathedral grounds. The crowd reacted by jumping on the military van and pelting it with stones. The TNI responded by firing into the crowd, killing one and injuring four others. Disregard for Catholic sensitivities was also reflected in the widespread acts of vandalism against statues, grottoes and other church property.

In addition to transmigrasi, the Indonesian government has encouraged the propagation of Islam in East Timor. Belo wrote to the Council of Indonesian Religious Superiors about the influx of Moslem teachers and preachers, and documented instances of groups of young men being sent to West Timor or Java to study at Moslem educational centers.[15] Moreover the Public Relations Bureau of the Province of East Timor openly spoke of the building of mosques in East Timor, and in a 1990 book showed a photograph of a bupati (district chief) being inaugurated by a Moslem cleric.

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The Referendum

In August 1998 the New York Times repeated a claim by the Indonesian military that, as part of its "housecleaning" measures, it had removed thousands of troops from East Timor. However, military documents leaked to Western NGOs showed that the military had not, in fact, withdrawn any troops, but had merely completed a standard troop rotation. The military denied the report, although a number of sources gave it credibility. Furthermore, the Indonesian military increased arms flows to pro-Indonesia paramilitary groups, resulting in more violence and an influx of refugees in search of sanctuary in Dili and Suai. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas claimed that the pro-referendum groups were "aggressive," and arming paramilitary groups was simply a way to ensure law and order. The pre-existing paramilitary groups prompted Belo to note that East Timor is a place where "one half of society is paid to spy on the other half" and he spoke out against worsening abuses. Belo repeatedly called for a peacekeeping force to stop the violence in East Timor as political uncertainty gripped Indonesia.

After Habibie announced the possibility of a referendum for the region, negotiations began between Indonesia, Portugal, and the United Nations. An agreement was reached in May of 1999 that called for a referendum to be held in early August. Human rights groups and others pointed to obvious flaws in the agreement, such as allowing the Indonesian military to remain in charge of all security issues and requiring the ratification of the referendum by the MPR (Majelis Pemusyawaratan Rakyat, the electoral congress), even though it would not meet until mid-October, allowing a period of uncertainty in the territory if independence was to be chosen. The United Nations pushed back the date of the referendum twice, eventually settling on August 30, in response to increasing violence and uncertainty over preparation for the vote. In the days leading up to the vote, observer groups sent out letters to the UN questioning its preparedness, and some considered withdrawing in protest as an attempt to erode the legitimacy of the vote.

However, on August 30, 1999, the referendum took place. Initial confusion was smoothed out as the day progressed as UN workers figured out solutions to problems that arose, such as general disorder at polling stations. The vote proceeded with less violence than was expected, and over 98 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls, proving that Indonesia's intimidation strategy had failed to stop people from voting. Many voters expressed the sentiment that they had been living under Indonesian threat for 24 years, and a few more months, days or weeks would not deter them from voting their consciences.

The church maintained a high profile during the referendum process, even providing UN- accredited observers. It continued in its role as sanctuary for those fleeing militia violence, and provided advice and warnings to the UN and observer groups. No clergy openly campaigned for either side, although they may have been perceived as pro-independence for giving sanctuary to those under threat. [16]

The night of the vote, however, shattered the calm that had prevailed during the day. Violence erupted throughout the territory, and escalated daily. Observer teams and UN personnel were forced to evacuate areas that were perceived as militia strongholds, such as Suai, Oecussi, Maliana and Aileu. The UN compound was attacked for the first time on September 1, and the police responded slowly, and then stood idle for about an hour before attempting to breakup the disturbance. The results of the vote were announced on September 4, a few days earlier than expected, and the chaos intensified. Almost all UN personnel and observers were evacuated by September 7, leaving the Indonesian military and militias few witnesses to the devastation they had been threatening for months. Known pro-independence East Timorese were sought out and killed, as were East Timorese who worked for the UN. Approximately 200,000 East Timorese were rounded up at gunpoint and forced onto planes, trucks and ships to be sent to West Timor, Flores, and other locations in Indonesia. Many remain in West Timor in squalid camps run by the militias. Most vehicles and possessions were either stolen or destroyed, and 70-80 percent of the buildings burned. The military felt as though it had been slapped in the face by the East Timorese after years of financing "development" and a scorched earth policy was its revenge.

The church did not escape the wrath of the militias and military. Traditionally afforded nominal respect by the pro-integrationist side, the church and its representatives became a target. On September 6, priests and displaced persons were among the estimated fifty people killed in a church in Suai by the Laksaur militia. On September 26, several nuns and "religious workers" were among the eight people killed in Los Palos by the Team Alfa militia. Church property was looted and destroyed, including the residence of Bishop Belo, who evacuated.

After more than two weeks of pressure on the Indonesian government, met with denials of the extent of damage and assurances that the military was under control, Habibie finally agreed to allow international peacekeepers into the region, led by an Australian contingent. [17] Peace was established relatively quickly and with little violence, although the damage had already been done. Aid organizations were quick to establish a presence in East Timor, hoping to stave off impending famine (the militias had stolen food stocks and destroyed crops and livestock). The MPR ratified the vote on October 20. The church has been working with organizations in the distribution of aid as well as getting involved in the nation-building process. The church had a diocese representative, Father José Antonio, in the ten-person National Consultative Council (NCC), an organization that included representatives from the major political parties as well as NGOs. The NCC was in dialogue with the UN in an attempt to create a viable political system. [18] The church has also started education programs and is playing a role in the emerging Commission for reception, Truth, and Reconciliation, a body similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in order to resolve sensitive issues such as the return of militia members. Bishop Belo, contrary to Gusmão and Ramos Horta, has continued to vehemently criticize the Indonesian government and military for abuses in East Timor and maintain calls for an international tribunal.

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Discussion and Implications

The role of the Catholic Church in East Timor casts more doubt about the universality of secularization theory, congruent with Casanova's thesis. Close comparisons can be made about the instrumental role of the church in East Timor, Poland, and the Philippines. Secularization theory predicts a lessening role, or "privatization," of religion within the context of the state as it modernizes, and Casanova disputes this thesis.

Similar to East Timor, the Polish church played an instrumental role in fostering an indigenous Catholic nationalism. Attempts by the state to privatize Catholicism and reduce its significance failed, and the results were, in fact, the reverse. The church expanded its role from defender of "both religious rights and the rights of the nation" to defender of human, civil and workers' rights.

The collapse of the Communist state in Poland signaled a new chapter for relations between the church and state and the church and society in Poland, and Casanova raises questions about the potential role of the church in Poland that must be addressed "constitutionally, institutionally, and culturally." These questions must all be faced and resolved by the East Timorese leadership as well.

Furthermore, as in Poland, the East Timorese church represented the only form of indigenous, popular civil society tolerated by the state. As a result, the two were inseparable: civil society in East Timor was Catholic. With independence secular civil society is emerging in East Timor in the form of NGOs and other associations. However, although these groups can be called secular, their membership is predominantly made up of Catholics who retain their respect for the church. The same is true for the emerging political leadership of East Timor. Although the church may not play a direct role in the decision making process, and in fact at times may seem to play and adversarial role to the leadership, there is no doubt that its influence will remain, similar to the experience of Poland.

Another fruitful comparison can be made to the Philippines, East Timor's neighbor to the north. The process of inculturation there was very similar to that of East Timor's, although much earlier. Spanish friars remained aloof up to the last part of the twentieth century, and there was mutual disdain between them and their parishioners. As indigenous clergy were trained after the opening of seminaries in the Philippines, and Jesuits began educating natives (sometimes at odds with the Catholic leadership), Filipino nationalism emerged, and this disdain turned to suspicion.

The Catholic Church became even more of an indigenous church after independence, and has played a significant role in politics since then. Clerical opposition to the Marcos regime was furthered by the creation of Small Christian Communities, [19] which allowed the clergy to become more involved in the secular lives of their parishioners and play an instrumental role similar to that of indigenous clergy in East Timor during the Indonesian occupation. During the explosion of "people power" in the mid-1980s the Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Jaime Sin, played a significant oppositional role and helped bring people to the streets, forcing Marcos' ouster.

This oppositional role was played out again in late-2000 and early-2001. As charges of corruption were brought against President Estrada, Sin roundly condemned his behavior and withdrew his support. Although the straw that broke the camel's back was the withdrawal of military support for Estrada, Sin's criticism was critical in helping to shape popular perceptions of Estrada. In this sense, the church has remained active, and "public." Given the similarities in history (inculturation, opposition to abuse, status as the majority religion, a well-respected and loved leader) there is reason to believe that the church in East Timor may play a similar role in the future. And given the continued importance of the church in Poland, there is no reason to believe that as East Timor modernizes the significance of the church will decline.

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Despite vigorous attempts by TNI to co-opt or discredit church officials, the Roman Catholic Church remained a cornerstone in the struggle for East Timorese self-determination. Bishop Belo and other church leaders not only eased the suffering of the East Timorese population, but engendered a sense of nationalism that fueled the movement for independence. As church personnel became more acculturated and active in informing the world about injustices that occurred in East Timor the church became stronger as a voice of the people.

The awarding of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize to Bishop Belo and José Ramos Horta brought both a sense of pride to the East Timorese as well as renewed oppression by TNI. Economic and political change in Indonesia, along with intense international pressure, led to the ouster of Suharto and the succession of Habibie, who relented to pressure concerning East Timor and allowed a referendum. In the face of tremendous intimidation, the people of East Timor overwhelmingly chose independence.
With the end of the Cold War, the Western powers, specifically the United States and Great Britain, no longer turned a blind eye to Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. Since the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre in 1991, the United States began recognizing human rights abuses in East Timor by banning small weapons sales and halting IMET (International Military Exchange Training) courses to Indonesia. [20] As Indonesia continues to founder economically and politically, talk of conditioning US aid on human rights in other regions, such as Aceh, West Papua, and the Moluccas, continues. Belo continues his outspoken criticism of the Indonesian military in support of an international tribunal.

What was once deemed an "irreversible" invasion and occupation has been reversed, yet the ultimate fate of the East Timorese no doubt rests on a number of factors, including the ability of the UN to work with the population without alienating them, and the ability of East Timorese leaders to settle their infighting and agree on political and economic issues. What is more certain, however, is that the Roman Catholic Church, led by Bishop Belo, played a major role in the fomenting of a nationalism that survived twenty four years of brutal occupation, has cemented its role in East Timor as a spokesman for the oppressed, and continues to influence decisions made in the twenty-first century's newest state.

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[1] Just what process allowed Habibie to approve of the vote may never be known, but there is speculation that Habibie and others were assured that the populations could be swayed into choosing autonomy through the terror tactics of the militias that were armed, trained and supplied by the Indonesian military and local government. International pressure brought to bear on Indonesia was surely a factor as well.

[2] Formerly known as ABRI (Angkatan Bersenjata Republic Indonesia, Armed Forces of the Republic of Indonesia), the military has been known as TNI (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, Indonesian national military) since April 1999.

[3] Casanova, José. Public Religions in the Modern World. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). For a full discussion of the applicability of Cassanova’s theory to the East Timor case, se the unabridged version of this paper.

[4] A 1997 article in the TAPOL Bulletin reported that the document was actually signed in Bali, and at least two of the signatories, UDT leader Joao Carrascalao and APODETI figure Guilherme Maria Goncalves, have disassociated themselves from the treaty. At the first All-Inclusive Intra-East Timor Dialogue meeting in Austria in 1995 Goncalves declared that the Declaration was drafted by the Indonesians and the signatories were forced to sign. In an interview in the Indonesian daily Kompas, Sugianto, former agent for the military intelligence organization OPSUS, boasted of drafting and typing the Declaration (TAPOL, 1997: 18 (6)).

[5] The term Maubere is from an East Timorese ethnic name, Mambae. It was used in a derogatory way by the Portuguese to describe East Timorese who lived outside of the cities and were considered “backward.” The term was adopted by the resistance and included all East Timorese. The CNRM has changed its name, however, and is currently know as the CNRT — The National Council of Timorese Resistance.

[6] This also led to some concern on the part of the United Nations leadership while organizing the vote that they might have trouble determining who was eligible. Through strict procedures, including allowing anyone to check the list and dispute any names, the UN was confident that very little cheating occurred, around 400,000 people registered, and approximately 98.5 percent turned up to vote.

[7] An interesting item to note is that since the Indonesian military had implemented a full information blackout of East Timor, wives and children of TNI personnel stationed in East Timor would often ask Bishop Lopes for news of their loved ones when he visited Jakarta. TNI did not notify families in the case of death or injury while soldiers were stationed in East Timor.

[8] During the instillation ceremony, a group of priests protested by playing basketball in a nearby schoolyard.

[9] Belo became the Bishop of Lorium, “an ancient diocese in Italy no longer functioning.” He remained the Apostolic Administrator of Dili, and the move was interpreted as a show of confidence in the young bishop. It also showed a change in the stance of the Vatican. 

[10] Although Portuguese was still taught at the seminary at Dare, at least in the early years of the Indonesian occupation. School administrators were able to convince Indonesian authorities that they were preparing young people for return to Portugal. Interview, Domingos de Olivera, General Secretary of UDT and member of the National Consultative Commission, January 14, 2000, Dili. 

[11] The author wishes to acknowledge that the depth of personal religious conversion is another matter, i.e. the exact percentage of people who have completely given up their prior belief systems and converted wholeheartedly to Catholicism is unknown, and perhaps not possible to measure accurately. The significant point being made, however, is that the population who identify as Catholic accrue benefits by association with the institution of the church, as listed in this section.

[12] For a more complete report on birth control policy in East Timor, see: Sissons, 1997; and Franks, 155-168.

[13] The Indonesian press was either directly owned by the military or heavily subsidized and/or licensed by the government. Under threat of closure, the press usually toed the government’s line.

[14] Animosity continues, the most striking example today is the fate of a group of non-ethnically East Timorese Moslems in the Kampung Alor district of Dili. They were forcefully evacuated to West Timor with many East Timorese, and returned on September 30. They have been subjected to threats and abuse, and conflicting reports from the CNRT about their fate. They are currently housed in the mosque in Kampung Alor, under UN protection, and awaiting the results of as yet undecided immigration laws that will decide their fate. They have expressed their desire to remain in East Timor, but many in the community regard them with suspicion and open contempt, and they have been the victims of several attacks.

[15] Sending young men to study in Jakarta or elsewhere was often a pretext for kidnapping and killing the young men. The term disekolahkan (“to be sent to school”) is a euphemism long used by the Indonesian military to mean kidnapped and killed. There is a cliff between Suai and Ainaro named “Jakarta” by the East Timorese who live nearby, and the cliff is the site of many of these murders.

[16] There was little, if any, overt intimidation by the pro-independence side. They faced an opponent that was well armed and financed, which constantly intimidated the population with threats that it could realistically carry out. The pro-independence side was not well equipped (many FALANTIL members had given up their weapons at UN cantonments) and had very little money. Their only resource was the chance for freedom.

[17] This immediately soured Australia-Indonesia relations, leading to widespread protest and the cancellation of a joint security agreement.

[18] The NCC became the Constituent Assemble after elections in August 2001. The Constituent Assembly, with some changes, has become East Timor’s first acting Parliament.

[19] The Small Christian Communities are similar to Base Christian Communities associated with the liberation theology movement in Latin America.

[20] Following the IMET ban, similar military training to Indonesia continued under the name J-CET (Joint Combined Education and Training), although when this was disclosed, it caused quite an uproar among human rights groups.

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