The old saying “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” might seem to be a relic – in more ways than one – of the early Christian era when Nero and Domitian sent saints to a gory death in Rome’s Coliseum.

But it might apply just easily to a tiny half-island nation lying just north of Australia. In 1975, on the eve of the

Bishop Silva at his desk (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Indonesian invasion of what had had been a Portuguese colony for over 450 years, it is thought, though no precise figures are available, that around 20% of Timorese were Catholic. In 1999, when the Indonesians left, all bar 1-2% of Timorese were Catholic, and remain fervently so. As Bishop of Dili Ricardo da Silva told me “in East Timor, you will see every parish faithful and every Church full on Sunday”

In that quarter-century interlude, the occupying Indonesian troops contributed to the death of between 150,000 – 250,000 Timorese, if not through direct attacks, then because of the impact massive displacement of people had on food supply and healthcare. Given that there were only 700,000 East Timorese when the occupation began, the death toll is almost certainly the highest per capita of any country anywhere since World War II. As the Bishop says: “during the Indonesian time the Church was active, the Church attended to the people. People were frightened, and they ran to the Church”

The Bishop spoke to me before the recent announcement of a new coalition government comprising 4 parties, headed by 2002-2007 President Xanana Gusmao, a former resistance hero who spent much of the 1990s in jail in Jakarta. A week of riots ensued, led by supporters of the ousted Revolutionary Front for Independent Timor-Leste (FRETILIN) party.

With the Church percieved as anti-FRETILIN, and therefore helping the party decline from 57% of the vote in 2002, to just 29% this June, some of the violence in the east of the country targetted Church interests. Offices belonging to Catholic aid agencies Caritas and Catholic Relief Services were burnt down, while priests and religious took refuge in church compounds. However the safety of a convent proved illusory for an as-yet unknown number of girls in the Dom Bosco convent in Baguia, close to where the offices where torched. A group of youths broke in to the building late on August 10, raping what is thought to be 9 girls, the youngest of whom was 11.

East Timor’s one other Bishop, Basilo do Nascimento, whose diocese is headquartered in the FRETILIN stronghold of Baucau in the far east of East Timor, condemned the brutality of ‘irresponsible people’ , adding that ‘I do not balme anybody, but anyone who is behind these violations must bear responsibility.’

Rape ansd sexual violence were rife during Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and Timorese militias bought off by the Indonesians were not above the violating women and children. But for Timorese youth to attack children in theior own country has rocked Timorese society.

Those countries in the west with longer memories might see similarities with the Spanish Civil War and the French Revolution, when leftist radicals and associated hoods bent on underming the Church routinely raped Catholics, nuns and children included, as part of their terror campaigns.

However, given the history of Indoesian rule and with a 60-foot high statue of the late Pope John Paul II being erected on the western headland of the bay in which East Timor’s capital sits, Timorese are not likely to become shy about exhibiting their faith. The statue will complement an equally-prominent statue of Jesus Christ which sits atop an adjacent headland, 8km across the bay.

The Christ statue was built by the Indonesians, as a demonstration of their respect for the Catholic Timorese. It is therefore a source of some ambivalence in Timorese hearts, but the statue will remain, with a new counterpart, this one entirely Timorese.

But as a young Catholic nation, Bishop Silva concedes that “people here need education in the faith as well. Evangelisation is needed. But we have enough vocations every year to meet our needs.”

Having been in East Timor since February this year, it is clear that people’s hearts are in the right place. I point this out to the Bishop who reminds: “Yes, 98% of Timorese are Catholics, but it is what is in people’s hearts that count, not statistics.”

No complacency then. When I tell the Bishop about the decline of the faith in Ireland, he expresses disappointment, and points wistfully to a 6-foot long photo of St. Peter’s Square, packed with pilgrims. “I am from a tiny and remote island. When I was a young priest, it was always a difficult job to explain to others where Timor is. But I keep this photo on my wall to remind me that there is a worldwide Catholic family.”

East Timor has just come through the most difficult year of its short post-independence history. A state only since 2002, and the poorest country in Asia, 2006 saw the world’s newest democracy racked by violence that saw over one-third of the army sacked and led to the displacement of over 10% of the one million population from their homes. These displaced are stuck in camps dotted around the capital Dili and in the eastern second city Baucau. Under the hot and humid tropical sun, life is not easy for the 100,000 people living in a tent since April 2006.

Those sacked from the army were mainly from the western part of East Timor, while m,any of the displaced civilians are easterners. After the westerner army personnel were removed, ensuing violence saw westerner gangs torch the houses of easterners living in the capital Dili.

Many if the same divisions permeate the elections held in 2007. FRETILIN garnered most of its support in the east, while the four-party coalition in government since the week before last is dominant in the central and western part of the country. In May, Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, a former Prime Minister and co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize along with Bishop Silva’s predecessor as Bishop of Dili, Carlos Belo, was elected Timor’s new President. On June 30, parliamentary elections were held, and it took over a month of wrangling before Ramos-Horta announced the identity of the new Prime Minister on August 5.

FRETILIN was the lead political party resisting Indonesian rule and retains a strongly socialist public profile, often clashing publicly with the Church. But public dissatisfaction with high unemployment and slow economic progress since independence saw FRETILINs share of the vote decline from 57% to 29% between 2002 and 2007.

New Prime Minister Gusmao’s rivalry with FRETILIN dates to the early 1980s, when as military leader of the resistance, he decoupled the FALINTIL military wing from the FRETILIN political wing, aiming to set up an inclusive national resistance coalition, and reach out to those alienated by FRETILIN’s continued adherence to doctrinaire Marxism. Gusmao was elected as Timor Leste’s first President in 2002, but stepped down from that role in 2007, leading the newly-formed National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) in the parliamentary elections – which gained 24% of the vote. The disappointingly low figure for Gusmao partly-reflects the couple of divisive speeches made at the height of the 2006 crisis, when he appeared to support the sacked army cadres.

With over one billion dollars in new oil and gas money sitting in a bank in New York, there is economic potential to complement the sterling spiritual reserves in this tropical half-island. But the new country does not have the capacity to spend the largesse, instead putting the revenues away for the future benefit of Timorese people – as Norway continues to do with its oil wealth. Given that oil and natural resources have fuelled conflict and destruction elsewhere, the Timorese policy is a wise one.

But people must be helped now, and a functioning government is vital to East Timor’s future. Bishop Silva says that “people are poorer than ever, fighting politicians do not help 100,000 people who are unable and afraid to go home..people are frustrated”.

He concludes with a message to Ireland, and the world..’we are not helpless, but we cannot yet manage on our own. The continued presence of and engagement of the world is needed here, until we can stand on our own two feet. I know East Timor is not a strategically-important place. But please do not forget us.”

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