C. Political activism and role of the Catholic Church in East Timor

The Catholic Church historically had a prominent role in the lives of the East Timorese people. Aside from providing spiritual guidance, they were the defenders of ordinary people against any access or abusive demands placed on them through forced labor by the colonial government and later against human rights abuses by the Indonesian occupiers. The church’s strong voice about the plight of the East Timorese people also kept the independence issue in the international arena alive; and Bishop Belo was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.  During Portuguese times the Church was also the main educator of the East Timorese—first by the Dominicans and then by the Jesuits. As pointed out in the history section above, many of the current political elite were educated by Jesuit priests.

The Catholic Church, however, also had a strong political interest and role. The historical foundation of the Church’s political involvement go back at least to the early 20th century when members of the Church hierarch were formally included in legislative councils under the Salazar government. During the UN transitional administration (UNTAET and ETTA), prominent priests were also included in the government. Indeed the Catholic Church organized its own civic education programs prior to the Constituent Assembly elections in August 2001. In 2004, while deciding against it, the former bishop, Ximenes Belo, was considering entering politics and running in the next presidential elections.

Given the prominent influence of the Catholic Church on the lives of the East Timorese people, with Catholicism being a major identity marker, the Church has great power in influencing politics. Their influence does not only extend to just through lobbying the governmental powers; but also to organize the masses and influence public opinion. Thus, the Church could easily affect how people might vote or what candidates they might support, as long as they phrase these in terms of following ‘Catholic principles’. While the constitution of East Timor separates Church and State and prescribes tolerance and respect for all religions, in the preparatory pre-constitutional phase, the Catholic Church was very heavily lobbying to make Roman Catholicism the official state religion in the constitution.

The prominent political involvement of the Catholic Church is also illustrated by recent events in East Timor. The leaders of the Church, such as Father Domingos Soares, have organized a series of demonstrations and rallies starting on 18 March 2005 that went on for over four weeks. Thousands turned out daily, and it has been reported that the East Timorese police also descended in full force with drawn weapons. The demonstrations were in protest of a February government proposal to abolish mandatory religious education from state schools and make it voluntary. However, the issues of justice and democracy were also a prominent part of the demonstrations, as the Church wished to express its outrage over the not pursuing trials of Indonesian militia and military personnel who committed atrocities in 1999. The government accused the Church of creating a volatile situation. The church accused the government of being “extremist” and a “dictatorship”. The Church also claimed that the people do not trust the government and the demonstrators demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Alkatiri.

It should be pointed out, however, that the Catholic Church representatives were not only pushing for the inclusion of mandatory Catholic religious education in state school curriculum. They also suggested that tenets of other minority religions be also included (such as Islam, Protestantism, and so on). On the other hand, most East Timorese interpreted the Church’s outrage on the governmental proposal of excluding religious education as an outrage against not having mandatory Catholic religious education for all Timorese children. It is also interesting to note that some Catholic news sources (http://www.sspxasia.com/Countries/East_Timor/NewsArchive.htm  and http://www.catholic.org/) in their reports on the situation made certain to point out that East Timor’s Prime Minister was Muslim; referring to him as the “Muslim Prime Minister Mari Bin Amude Alkatiri”.

By 7 May 2005 the Church and the government reached an agreement with the Prime Minister and bishops of Dili and Baucau, D. Alberto Ricardo da Silva and D. Basilio do Nacimento, signing a joint declaration (http://www.etan.org/et2005/may/15/09joint.htm).[1] In spite of a series of preambles referring to parts of the Constitution, the seven point declaration suggests a political victory for the Church in terms of mandatory religious education. It also mandates the establishment of a Permanent Working Group, a month for the signing of the declaration, which will consists of representatives of the Catholic Church and other religious denomination and also government officials to formalize the program of mandatory religious education. The declaration if indeed applied will garner another colossal victory for the Church. Point 6 (ibid) demands that,


 The Draft Penal Code should address the abortion issue in all its dimensions; abortion must be defined as a crime, except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to avoid the mother’s death. The law must equally define the practice of prostitution as a crime, but should protect victims forced into prostitution. [emphasis is mine]


It would appear that the Catholic Church’s activism for legalizing at least some aspects of ‘Catholic doctrine and principles’ may achieve what they could not prior to the writing of the Constitution -- a Constitutional inclusion of Catholicism as state religion. Should the Church continue with their agenda and succeed, Catholicism might as well have been declared a state religion. It will be interesting to observe the Church’s political activities and advances in the next national elections of East Timor.


[1] Original source is OCR from scanned text at http://pascal.iseg.utl.pt/~cesa/documento%20acordo%20dili.pdf.

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