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Timor-Leste: A young nation with strong faith and heavy burdens

Outside of Vatican City, Timor-Leste has the highest proportion of Catholics among its population of any country in the world.

Left: The Church of Santo António de Motael, in Dili, the capital of East Timor (yeowatzup/Wikipedia); right: The Igreja da Imaculada Conceição Church, in Viqueque, located in southeast East Timor. (José Fernando Real/Wikipedia).

Aside from the Philippines, Timor-Leste (also known as East Timor) is Southeast Asia’s only predominantly Christian nation. And when one talks about Christianity in that country, that basically means the Church of Rome: multiple sources list its Catholic proportion at or above 98 percent of the whole population. Outside of Vatican City, Timor-Leste has the highest proportion of Catholics among its population of any country in the world.

Despite such a strong Church presence, Timor-Leste is a troubled place: one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, some 46 percent of East Timorese have never received any formal education. More than one-third of its population faces food shortages on a regular basis. Additionally, this nation has one of the world’s most traumatic recent histories.

Shortly after obtaining independence from Portugal in 1975 (the Portuguese, along with Catholicism, came to the island of Timor in 1515), the country was invaded by nearby Indonesia. Ensuing decades of violence and deprivation killed as much as one-third of the East Timorese population, according to some estimates.

In a 1999 election supervised by the United Nations, the vast majority of East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia. In the ensuing weeks, however, anti-independence militias unleashed a wave of retaliation that killed about 1,400 people, forced 250,000 more to flee, and devastated the area’s already underdeveloped infrastructure.

Timor-Leste, which today has a population of about 1.2 million, became the first new nation of our current millennium upon obtaining its independence on May 20, 2002. Though there have been some threats to national security–such as an unsuccessful coup attempt in 2008–the country has not reverted to widespread carnage.

Turmoil with Indonesia has subsided. But other dangers in Timor-Leste have surfaced, such as gangs of martial arts practitioners who, typically unemployed, roam the urban streets seeking to display their fighting prowess.

Martial arts groups became prevalent in East Timor in the late-1970s, when many young men sought to combat the Indonesian occupation. After independence was gained, however, these marital arts clubs became rivals, often with lethal consequences. Having since allied themselves with political parties, they have spread beyond Dili, the capital city, to other sizable population centers.

In an effort to mitigate crime, the Church has developed “specific values-based and educational programs for youth,” says Father David Hofman, the communications director for the Carmelites of Australia and Timor-Leste.

Hofman–who adds that his comments for this article reflect his own personal views and are not necessarily the opinions of the Carmelites–has been visiting Timor-Leste since 2001, when the Australian Carmelites formally took responsibility for Carmelites in Timor.

Aside from formation programs that prepare young East Timorese for the Carmelite order, the Carmelites operate educational programs and provide emergency food and flood relief. The order also provides university scholarships and facilitates small-scale business operations (typically agricultural).

Timor-Leste has three dioceses: Dili, established in 1940; Baucau, established in 1996; and Maliana, established in 2010. About 220 priests serve in these three dioceses. According to a 2015 America magazine article, Timor-Leste has 574 seminarians, which is a very large number for its population. In fact, about 400 young men are turned away each year from the seminary because there are not enough spots for them. In 2017 UCA News reported on the establishment of a new seminary in Timor-Leste meant to accommodate the sizable numbers of young men who seek to become priests.

Masses in Timor-Leste are typically delivered in either Portuguese or Tetun (an indigenous Austronesian language). These are the official languages of Timor-Leste, where English and Indonesian are considered “working languages.”

Though no East Timorese Catholics have been designated as “Venerable” or “Servants of God,” Hofman relates how the nation’s most-admired Catholic is Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the former bishop of Dili (and a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize), who served during the years of Indonesian occupation and is much-esteemed for his steadfast advocacy on behalf of Timorese rights during that era.

Owing to all the violence following the Indonesian invasion, East Timor is very much a traumatized nation. Hofman says that after independence was obtained, some of the Carmelites established a program to listen to the accounts of survivors and “to try to move towards healing and reconciliation.” He personally knows fellow Carmelites who “were deeply traumatized by what happened during and after the Indonesian occupation and are still dealing with the psychological injuries resulting from that.”

Aside from psychological scars, the nation is still trying to build a reliable infrastructure. Hofman explains how Indonesian-backed militias decimated “nearly all the schools, medical facilities, telephone and power networks in East Timor. In some places, schools did not re-open for years afterwards.”

For all the impact of the conflict period, Hofman believes that today’s urban street crime is more directly related to the nation’s “very limited higher education and employment opportunities.” He adds that most offenders “tend to be young unemployed males.” An August 2018 UCA News article reported that, in this nation of not much more than 1 million persons, almost 500,000 persons of working age are either unemployed or outside the labor force.

There is likely no quick fix for such a problem. Hofman explains how there are “only a handful of medium-sized businesses” in operation. Additionally, “most construction workers are either Indonesian or Chinese workers brought in by foreign companies. These businesses don’t tend to employ local Timorese people, or only employ them in the most labor-intensive parts of their operations.”

Other problematic factors include a widespread lack of education. In fact, barely one-third of the population has ever read a newspaper.

East Timor’s high rates of illiteracy have proven difficult to remedy. Hofman points out that, “Many older people didn’t ever go to school.” Many worked as subsistence farmers–a job for which literacy was not needed. Additionally, the disruption of the school system during years of widespread turmoil meant that many people never received even a primary education. Meanwhile, many others “only started primary school in their mid-teens and didn’t move on to high school.”

On a more positive note, Hofman says that in Timor-Leste, “there doesn’t seem to be many sign” of a decline in faith, as seen in so many Western nations.

Despite such an overwhelming and faithful Catholic majority, Hofman feels that the Church could face some difficulties in the future. He explains that, “While the Church is mainly good at looking after people, it often appears to be harsh and uncompromising.”

Hofman takes issue with the “lecturing style of homilies,” saying that he has heard of people being “berated for 30 or 40 minutes at Sunday Mass.” He thinks the younger generation will be unlikely to tolerate such an arrangement for long. In his view: if the Church “can manage to change its style and approach, and its priests grow closer to the people, and less superior, then there is every reason to be optimistic.”


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About Ray Cavanaugh 10 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

1 Comment

  1. There should be some kind of legislation requiring foreign countries to hire locals for any jobs they are capable of doing. Abd at the sane time offer education to all who want it in order that they are able to “move up the company leader” should they so desire.

    It’s a shame that education seems to often bring a lack of Faith with it. St.Francis was known to distrust even some theological studies but allowed St. Anthony to teach it when he entered the order, due to his personal holiness and balanced approach to learning.

    In our current world money is God (even more than ever before) and poverty is seen as evil in and of itself.

    “The love if money is the root if all evil” is often misquoted. It is not money itself (as a means of trade) that is evil. But prioritizing money and what it can buy (whether material goods, power, influence or any other temporal thing) over the demonstrated Love of God and neighbour, is truly the path to hell; both on earth and in eternity.

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