Podium: Why we cling to the rock of ages

From a speech by the East Timorese priest to a Christian Solidarity conference in London
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The Independent Culture
AMIDST THE terrible loss of human life, the erosion of social and cultural values and exploitation, the destruction of our natural resources and ecological environment, one may question why the Church is the only Timorese institution that still survives and even becomes stronger.

Why has there been a massive conversion to the Christian (Catholic) Church during 20 years of Indonesian Islamic rule, many more than 400 years of the administration of Catholic Portugal? The Church has grown in size from less than 30 per cent of the population in 1975 to more than 80 per cent of the population today, to the point that it was necessary to create a second diocese two years ago; and a third one will emerge in near future.

For the Timorese people, this dramatic conversion is generated by widespread atrocities perpetrated by the Indonesian army, and its policy of Indonesianisation of native East Timorese.

The atrocities perpetrated by the military are perceived by the Timorese as a mockery of the official Indonesian policy that Jakarta is working for the well-being and interests of the Timorese people.

The magnitude of the suffering has generated and created an anti-Indonesian feeling among the Timorese. The depth of such feeling is commensurate with the high price the Timorese paid for the Indonesian occupation: in 20 years more than 200,000 Timorese lost their lives, facing systematic destruction of their social and economic structures. And those who have manage to survive live in a climate of terror, repression and insecurity.

This behaviour obviously hurts the Timorese people, most of whom have experienced in their own body the tortures, and many have seen with their own eyes how their parents, wives or sons have been slaughtered by Indonesian troops. This behaviour has contributed to create a climate of great mental depression. Antipathy towards Indonesians is widespread and generalised in its origin and purpose.

Such antipathy is obviously extended to all who are associated with Indonesia. Its organisations, bureaucrats, teachers, all are regarded as the instruments of a despotic government in Jakarta which imposed on the Timorese people an undesirable and unacceptable policy - annexation.

On the other hand, the fact of the island of Timor being discovered by a Portuguese Dominican monk has a particular significance for the Timorese traditions, legends and beliefs, and created an atmosphere of friendship and respect for all that belongs to the Church.

As the experiences of the past have consolidated the relation of people with the church, now, in hard times, the people have turned to the Church for every form of assistance, for food, medicine, clothing, housing, education and for spiritual support.

They have also turned to the Church for protection of their human rights. And no one in East Timor has been a stronger defender of the people's rights than the Church.

In spite of material rewards for the adherents of Islam, the totality of the people of East Timor opted for the church that had identified with them, rejoicing in their satisfaction towards an order of prosperity and freedom, and being sorrowful at their sadness towards oppression and sufferings.

In other words, difficult times for the people of East Timor have also been difficult for the Church. The Church is the people's Church.

In the long term, the Church is attempting to remove the causes that have resulted in the genocide of the Timorese people and their culture. The Church understands that any attempt to address the problem of East Timor, in humanitarian terms alone, is to reduce East Timor to a question of more material aid and money, and is both naive and unjust.

Certainly the Timorese do not see it exclusively in these terms or think that more aid is the fundamental answer to our problem. Our experience under Indonesia has convinced us that the key to our dignity and happiness lies in the exercise of our God-given right to self-determination.

Much deeper than the pain in our bellies or disease in our bodies, is the pain in our spirits that comes from the denial of our rights. To mitigate this pain, the Church in East Timor is trying its best to find a satisfactory solution to the problem of East Timor, which is not a problem of charity, but a problem of justice that should be solved through democratic process in the light of UN recommendations rather than having to resort to force and repression.