sábado, 31 de julho de 2010

The Influence of the Liberation Theology and the Role of the Catholic Church during the Indonesian Occupation of East Timor

By: Cesar Dias Quintas (Lere-Malai)
First Fulbright Scholar from Timor-Leste and Master of Art in Southeast Asian Studies Minor in Political Science

The East Timorese resistance movement for independence was moved along with the Leaders of Catholic Church against 24 years of Indonesian military brutalities. East Timorese independence would have been difficult without the role of Church leaders in the context of the East Timorese national liberation process. However, neither East Timorese Church leaders nor resistance leaders have yet clearly acknowledged that the liberation theology movement had a role during the Indonesian occupation. They only recognize that the Catholic Church as an institutional contributed to struggle for the East Timorese right for self-determination. They have not yet precisely recognized who was the driving force involving the Catholic Church in the East Timorese political process as a liberation theology movement. From this context, the state and the government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste should have already officially given national acknowledgment for Mgr Martinho da Costa Lopes (Mgr Lopes) and Mgr Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo (Bishop Belo) along with their fellow East Timorese compatriots. I would argue that the extensive role of those extraordinary Church leaders was influenced by a liberation theology movement which pitted the East Timorese Church against the atrocities and oppressions of Indonesian soldiers. Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo and the Catholic Church indisputably had contributed to the process of East Timorese self-determination which East Timorese should be considered those Timorese churchmen as part of their national hero.

The Influence of the Liberation Theology

Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo were eyewitness of the Indonesian’s brutal actions in East Timor. Mgr Lopes studied theology in Macau, which became the basic principle driving him into the liberation theology movement. He had no fear of confronting the Indonesian military and even offered himself to be sacrificed rather than surrender the people he was protecting in his residence. Bishop Belo observed the 1975 democratic transition in Portugal and involved in the East Timorese student organization for independence. Those backgrounds were strongly opened their mind to actively respond what was happening during the Indonesian occupation. These became a basic principle of strongly motivating the two Churchmen involving in East Timorese political process for self-determination. Without the contribution of these two Timorese Church leaders, Catholic Church institutionally would not have been actively involved in the national resistance for East Timorese Independence. “By 1980 Mgr Lopes was on the record as favoring a genuine plebiscite about self-determination.”1 This was another aspect of how Mgr Lopes against his institutional policy by speaking about the reality of East Timorese under the systematic oppression of Indonesian military.

These experiences of the two men, along with their direct involvement with the East Timorese political process, shaped them to become the figures of liberation theology. They often confronted their own spiritual faith and the Catholic Church institution, especially the Vatican. The Indonesian Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican representative in Jakarta supported integration of East Timor into Indonesia. During the isolation of East Timor from the international community, the Church, with its outspoken local leaders became voices for the voiceless East Timorese people. As majority of East Timorese leaders might aware that the Vatican role during the Indonesian invasion was totally reluctant to voice the rights of East Timorese for self-determination. Indonesian military annexation was not self-determination but it was illegal invasion along with well-organized of international conspiracy.

The two bishops (Vatican never consider Mgr Lopes as a Bishop; however, East Timorese regarded him as their Bishop or they used to call him: Amu Bisbu) used the principles of the Catholic faith to interpret the rights of people to self-determination. According to Bishop Belo, “As a member of a people, I take upon myself the mission of enlightening and denouncing of all human situations which are in disagreement with the Christian concept and contrary to the teaching of the Church concerning all men” (Nobel Lecture, 1996)2. It is clear that the two Catholic leaders did not depend on the pastoral works which were they assigned by the Vatican but used their Christian faith to deal with the actual human rights violations. They were eyewitnesses of political violence which victimized thousands of innocent people across the country. The actions they took were based on their testimony from the political violence on the ground. According to Gutiérrez, “The bishops of the most poverty-stricken and exploited areas the ones who have denounced most energetically the injustices they witness” (2007)3. This means the Church leaders could not avoid the suffering of the people and merely focus on their pastoral mission; the people regarded them as their voice and as a moral force for their liberation movement. The human rights violations had encouraged Church leaders to apply their spiritual faith to ease the suffering of the people.

As Catholic leaders of East Timor, Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo felt driven to act as the voice of people who were unable to exercise their fundamental rights. Furthermore, as indigenous bishops, they probably could not ignore their own people who had been brutally torched and killed. Bishop Lopes was present at the Indonesian invasion, where he could see the military burning property and killings people, the extreme starvation and raping of women in front of their husbands. Moreover, Bishop Belo witnessed removing the bodies and capturing people who had been seriously wounded after the Indonesian military shooting the peace demonstrators at the Santa Cruz cemetery. These phenomena strongly inspired not only Church leaders but many Catholic priests as well involved to become in the political process.

When the Catholic leaders witnessed of the violence, they started to look their tasks at beyond the pastoral mission in East Timor. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church institutionally attempted to maintain neutrality in dealing with the political situation by promoting peace and justice. This meant that Church leaders were not favoring the independence activists but they were attempting to look at peace and justice within a broad perspective; for example, they always appealed to the East Timorese, whether pro-autonomy or independence, for reconciliation and to avoid political violence. The basic concept of the Catholic Church was nonviolence. However, the Church could not overlook its moral duty in face of the escalation of human rights violations enacted on a daily basis by the Indonesia military. The two bishops had to decide whether to keep the Church focused on pastoral work or to side with the people of East Timor.

The Role of the Catholic Church

During the 24 years of Indonesian occupation, the Catholic Church played a vital role in defending the rights of the East Timorese to self-determination. During the period of the Indonesian occupation, about 200.000 people died from starvation, diseases and military brutality. As the only institution that remained when Portugal abandoned the territory, the Catholic Church was transformed into an organization which joined with the suffering of the people of East Timor. The Church constituted a symbol of national unity and identity for the East Timorese. The Diocesan Bishop of Baucau, Basilio Nacimento argued that, “the people have turned to the Church not out of religious conviction…but as an affirmation of their identity. Christianity was one more way in which East Timorese could show they were not Indonesian” (Cristalis, 2002)4. Apart from the resistance movement for the independence of East Timor, the Catholic Church a spirit of national liberation, especially became a voice of the voiceless for those who under Indonesian military oppressions. The role of the Catholic Church was precisely responding to the emergence of a new political regime in East Timor.

In the first years after the Indonesian invasion, the Church was still trying to identity its major task. It faced a difficult period of political transition trying to maintain its neutrality within a political complexity imposed by the Indonesian government. This was a created new political phenomenon and responsibility for the Catholic Church. Because the church was the only well-structured organization after the Portuguese left, it became a source of connecting and exposing East Timorese issues domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, Indonesian bombardments in the territory was destroyed many church buildings and facilities which then could not provide enough assistance to the people along with all foreign clergies who were forced to leave the country. It was almost impossible for the Church to work with the limited facilities and clergy in such a political environment. When Indonesian government banned international non-profit organizations, people became totally dependent on the Catholic Church as a place to find basic human necessities as well as political freedom.

The Church had to defend and accommodate people who were under military repression. In these circumstances, Suharto’s government often accused Catholic leaders of being involved in political activities supporting the independence of East Timor. During this silent war, the two indigenous churchmen, Mgr Lopes and his descendant Bishop Belo were struggling to defend the rights of the people for self-determination. They fought for the people who could not find basic peace and freedom in their home country. There were several assassination attempts on the lives of the two bishops when they kept fighting for peace and justice. In his letter smuggled to the New York Times, Bishop Belo asserted that he, “might suffer the same fate as Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the primate assassinated in 1980” (February 11, 1990)5.

The Church which used to endorse the policies of the Portuguese government became outspoken in protest of the Indonesian regime. The Church also became the people’s aspiration and an advocator for the East Timorese during the 24 years of Indonesian military rule. Cristalis reported, “In nearly five hundred years of its history in East Timor, the Catholic Church had never been as popular as it was when the territory was ruled by invaders from a largely Muslim country” (2002)6. The Church had its played largest role in East Timor than during its previous era. This religious institution appeared to assume a new responsibility which confronted with its core mission and became the safeguard for the East Timorese. The Church actively played an integral role in the process of East Timorese resistance for self-determination in achieving the independence of the country.

The political situation transformed the characteristics of the Catholic Church and its leadership into a new phase. Throughout the Portuguese colonial era, the Church not only functioned as a religious institution but was also involved in the power structure to implement government policies, especially education programs in East Timor. It had a major responsibility and became an important instrument in educating indigenous people. Smythe affirmed that, “…the Church with prime responsibility for education in the colonies and it became the principle agent of Portugal’s ‘civilization mission”’ (2004)7. In fact, the majority of the East Timorese politicians were educated through the missionary schools. However, the situation dramatically changed when Indonesia occupied the country from 1975 to 1999. The Church stepped out from its role as a government agent and became an advocate for social justice and human rights. Although, few Catholic schools remained open, the Church had to manage them privately. Furthermore, the Catholic Church of East Timor independently became the archdiocese which was directly responsible to the Holy See (Vatican). This meant East Timorese Catholic Church was no longer under the Portuguese Church hierarchy or Indonesia.

The relationship between the people of East Timor and the Catholic Church had been strongly engaged in the political process. The people considered the Catholic Church as a part of the national liberation for independence, and the Church itself could not be separated from the people of East Timor because there was no other institution that people could trust. The Church had actively and unconditionally responded to people's concern. Mgr Lopes stated, “In the face of the culture and psychological genocide that the Indonesian Army has imposed on us, the large scale deaths, whether directly from the war or indirectly from starvation and diseases, the Catholic Church has emerged as the only one organization that the East Timorese people trust. There is a special and profound respect for the Church. Everything the people know they tell to the priests… With the highest authority the East Timorese Church can say that it knows the plight as well as the deepest aspiration of the people” (Smythe, 2004)8. It was a critical period for the Church leadership, especially Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo, to carefully balance their religious works with urgent practical anxiety concerning people’s needs and advocating their social legitimate and political aspirations.

With the limited resources and insecure environment, the Church extended tremendous effort in its dedication to the people. It provided enormous voluntary contributions at various levels of service. It had increased commonality and solidarity between the Church and the East Timorese people. However, the East Timorese viewed the Catholic Church not merely in a spirituality and humanitarian context but it had engaged the sentiment of nationalism. This made the relationship between the Catholic Church and the people significantly stronger. Therefore, the Indonesian military regime was unable to separate the Catholic Church and the people of East Timor even though it used many different kinds of manipulation domestically and internationally.

The increasing number of the Church memberships indirectly strengthened the national resistance movements for independence. During the almost 450 years under the Portuguese colonial system, the Church had only 30% membership, but this dramatically increased to 90% within two and a half decades of Indonesian occupation. The Church used to favor the Portuguese government, which was totally reversed during the Indonesian time. The Church and the Indonesian government had different perspectives on their responsibility. The 60% increase in the Catholic population indicated that significant interaction and cooperation had developed between the people and the Church. Smythe argues that, “Church membership became a symbol of Timorese identity to such an extent that there fusion of the religious and the secular, a merging of Catholicism and nationalism” (2004)9. The majority of East Timor’s Catholic population was a major issue that distinguished the region from Indonesia.

People considered the Church not merely as a spiritual institution but also as a representation of people’s resistance. Through the spiritual faith of Catholicism, East Timorese were enabled to translate justices and tolerances into the perspective of national resistance. On many political occasions, people frequently invoked the Catholic Church as a blessing and mediator. The people of East Timor and Catholic Church shared a common concern in many aspects of life. In addition, the Church attempted to create peace and justice in East Timor so that people could respect one another whether Indonesian or East Timorese. On the other hand, the East Timorese political situation demanded that the Catholic Church facilitate and mediate political fragmentation which was created by the Portuguese government and the Indonesian military regime. The Church had been actively vocal for people who could not find human dignity and justice in their homeland. As a result, local clergy were frequently killed and or accused by the Indonesian military forces of supporting the independence movement. The Catholic Church indeed institutionally tried to maintain its neutrality but the many local clergy could not avoid their involvement the resistance movement. Their beloved family members and relatives were killed by Indonesian solders and others took part in the independence resistance. Within East Timorese customs, family played vital role in the community.

Therefore, the author would argue that the Catholic Church was an important component for the national liberation of East Timor from which it cannot be separated. Catholicism had been rooted into the social culture and nationalism of the East Timorese. For instance, when Indonesian military forces abused the Church, there would be a massive reaction which could be turned into a political action. Hence, Catholic ideology had become a part of social transformation into the culture and political process. In his homily in East Timor on October 12, 1989, Pope John Paul II emphasized that, ”You who are Catholics in East Timor have a tradition in which family life, education and social customs are deeply rooted in the Gospel, and this tradition is a great part of your identity” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, October 12, 1989)10. The Pope was the first world leader to visit East Timor.

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Bishop Belo was a strong indication that this prestigious institution recognized the role of Church leaders individually and the Catholic Church intuitionally. The award was given because the extraordinary effort of the two charismatic spiritual leaders, Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo, in defending justice for the East Timorese people. However, the Church leaders acknowledged that their role could not stay away from Church institutionally. The Church institution and its leaders could not walk alone in such a situation as East Timor’s political situation during the Indonesia occupation. Bishop Belo stated “I regard the Nobel Peace Prize for the work done by the Catholic Church in East Timor, defending the inalienable rights of her people” (Nobel lecture, 1996)11. Ultimately, in order to recognize the role of the East Timorese Catholic Church, people should look at the two important figures of Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo as the driving force of the liberation theology movement. Without the principle of liberation theology from Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo, the East Timorese Church would not have been visibly involved in the political process.


During the 24 years of Indonesian military occupation, the Catholic Church stayed firmly with the people of East Timor to defend their right of self-determination. Whatever the political consequences, the East Timorese Church with its outspoken, leadership has extraordinarily contributed to the liberation of the East Timor people. With the anti-violence movement against the Indonesian regime, the Catholic Church generated a valuable prize of services for the people of East Timor to free their country from foreign aggression. Moreover, the basic principles of peace and justice constituted powerful elements of the Catholic Church to deal with the uncertainty of the political situation. That situation and the crises of human rights became major factors in engaging the Church in the liberation process. Although, the Church should try to stay neutral any political situation, this was actually inapplicable for East Timorese Church in such a political environment. Culture differences and human rights violations were the main causes of Church involvement in the political issues to against the Indonesian government.

The Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for Bishop Belo was exemplified that this prestigious international award acknowledged the resistance of the East Timorese Church in defending peace and justice. Second Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the East Timorese independence resistance leader, Jose Ramos Horta. This indicated that nationalism and Catholicism had interacted closely in promoting a peace true solution in East Timor. It would have been an even greater challenge to gain freedom without the effort from the Church leaders in supporting the right of self-determination for the East Timorese.

Therefore, Mgr Lopes and Bishop Belo should be recognized as figures of liberation theology in the context of East Timorese theology that put articulating their Christian faith into practice. Furthermore, the people, state and government of Timor-Leste should at least have given national recognition for those two charismatic leaders, especially what they have done along with their dedications for the people and the country of Timor-Leste. The Catholic Church and its leaders will still have an important role in the process of national development, especially in the areas of human rights and justice. I would argue that when the democratic and judicial system of the country is not well- functioned, the Church will probably become an alternative of supporting political stability and maintaining law and order. This has been exercised by the Church during the political crisis in 2006 to extensive assistance for refugees and help government to restore peace and democracy. Nonetheless, the contemporary East Timorese Catholic Church should reflect democratic values (separation of politics and religion) which are written in Timor-Leste’s national constitution.
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    1) Lennox, R. (2000). Fighting spirit of East Timor: the life of Martinho Da Costa Lopes. Pluto Press Australian limited.
    2) Nobel Lecture. (December 10, 1996). Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.
    3) Gutiérrez, G. (1971). A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY.
    4) Cristalis I. (2000). Bitter dawn: East Timor a people history. London & New York, Zed Books Ltd.
    5) The New York Times. (1990). East Timor bishop writes of torture. Retrieved Mar. 25, 2009, from
    6) Cristalis I. (2000). Bitter dawn: East Timor a people history. London & New York, Zed Books Ltd.
    7) Smythe, P. A. (2004). ’The heaviest blow’
    – The Catholic Church and the East Timor issue.” Transaction Publisher Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ.
    8) Smythe, P. A. (2004). ’The heaviest blow’ – The Catholic Church and the East Timor issue.” Transaction Publisher Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ.
    9) Smythe, P. A. (2004). ’The heaviest blow’ – The Catholic Church and the East Timor issue.” Transaction Publisher Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ.
    11) Nobel Lecture. (December 10, 1996). Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

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