A colonial inheritance and a strong identifying factor, the Catholic religion has perhaps been the true cohesive factor in the history of the Timorese and its role as well as its prestige were evidenced in the darkest times of modern history when the Church was tolerated by the Indonesian power but many of its exponents were persecuted.
Two events that may seem light-years from each other but which, instead, occupy a narrow time-frame, point to the communion of the local Catholic Church in its tenacity and long isolated from the world of repression. In the locality of Tasitolu, at the centre of a protected natural area, a six-metre statue of John Paul II that recalls his visit in 1989, stands. It was an occasion of opening towards the universal Church awaited by the Timorese but which inevitably became an opportunity to propose their sufferings free from Indonesian censure and concealment. During the Mass celebrated by the pontiff on 12 October, the police arrested some young people who approached the altar to bring to the attention of the illustrious visitor the tragic state of subjection of the Timorese people.
The ensuing chaos also involved the Holy Father who had to leave protected by priests and seminarians. In the following days, the international media and local sources testified to the blows and torture to which they were subjected. In this case, as in many others, there was no admission of responsibility on the part of the Indonesian authorities and no one has been investigated or prosecuted.
Substantially, no one has ever been held to account for the widespread violence that followed the ‘credendum’ under the aegis of the UN on 30 August, 1999. On hearing the news that those wanting independence had won, the pro-Indonesian militias gave themselves over to sackings, killings and destruction that not only left hundreds dead on the ground, just when freedom and peace seemed within reach, but also confirmed that a chasm full of hostility and suspicion existed between the local population and far away Jakarta.
Recognition of the self-denial of the local Church came from the government itself of Dili which, in an official communique on the occasion of the Concordat, emphasised that, ‘For five hundred years the Catholic Church has provided great spiritual, human and material support to the people of Timor, and has contributed decisively to the process of liberation of East Timor’.
It was the signing of the Concordat on 14 August, 2015, the first ever outside the Vatican, that brought Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to the small Asian nation. It was a highly symbolic signing on an equally important occasion: that of the celebration of 500 years of ecclesial presence. At the Mass celebrated on the feast of the Assumption on the same spot as that celebrated by Pope Wojtyla, the cardinal greeted the ten thousand people present and confirmed the desire of the Holy See to continue the journey side by side with the Timorese people who “are seeking to achieve their greatest aspirations as a nation, a nation built on justice, solidarity and peace”.
On the same occasion, Bishop Basilio do Nascimento Martins, President of the small Bishops’ Conference of East Timor, spoke of how the signing of the Concordat was destined to further strengthen cooperation between the Church and local government: “We live in a time of globalisation – the Bishop of Baucau pointed out – and cooperation between the Church and the government is important in facing the problems concerning the people of East Timor”.
The Church’s cooperation was never refused in the reconstruction of the civil fabric, in which it had and still has a foremost role to play. This was given not only through its undoubted influence on the 90% Catholic population and on political leaders but also through initiatives run in the three local dioceses which, with their parishes, educational and health institutions, movements and groups actively participated in by religious Institutes and Congregations, form a network of the first order in starting and sustaining initiatives of development and dialogue in the country. Finally, this support is not denied even to those who were once involved in Indonesian interests and are now closely united to the thousands of East Timor citizens in the sad conditions of refugees.
Today, fifteen years after the formal birth of the Democratic Republic of East Timor, while the country seeks to make a new start and think of its future, it understandably finds it difficult to wipe out the memory of the quarter of the Timorese people killed in combat, repression, guerrilla warfare or by hunger. The commitment to reconciliation in such a small nation that still bears the marks of its tormented history, and also the consequences of its traditional divisions, is still in its early stages as it awaits the establishment of the ‘Tribunal for the Timorese Genocide’. The greatest efforts seem to have been made by the ‘Commission for Reception Truth and Reconciliation’ created by the civil society, which has tried to place within the social fabric those responsible for minor violence and politically motivated crimes during the period of Indonesian occupation and also to investigate abuses of human rights that took place between 1975 and 1999. In this, the role of the Catholic Church is central.
In August, 2000, it proposed to the national Congress of Indonesian Resistance, which laid the foundations of the new independent State, to adopt an initiative that would lay the foundations for trust and solidarity essential for the construction of any prospects for peace and progress. This proposal matured within a commission charged with determining if the idea was acceptable to the population, a commission that would later become the present ‘Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation’. A ‘Serious Crimes Unit’ was created by the UN in connection with the government to investigate the more serious cases of human rights violations. In the end, few of those investigated and formally accused appeared before the judges. Some of these are Indonesians, including some members of the armed forces whose extradition Indonesia has always refused.