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Archdiocese of Dili

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Archdiocese of Dili
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Timor Leste has 13 districts served by three dioceses: Dili, Baucau, and Maliana. The diocese of Dili covers six districts, while the dioceses of Baucau and Maliana cover four and three districts, respectively.


The latest data says that Timor-Leste had a total population of 617,898. Most people live in the area served by the diocese of Dili, which has about 585,958 Catholics. These people are indigenous people from other countries such as Indonesia, Australia, Portugal, and Brazil.


Almost every district has its own language. Generally, however, the language used in these districts is Tetun.


Within the Indonesian archipelago with its more than 13,000 islands, Timor, which is divided into West and East Timor, is the biggest among the Small Sunda Islands. From 1586 till 1975 East Timor (Timor Leste) was a Portuguese colony. In the vast Portuguese colonial empire, East Timor always played only a modest role as a provider of coffee, cocoa products, and sandal wood.

During the Pacific War (1941-1945) West Timor was occupied by Japan. After the end of the Pacific War in 1945 the Portuguese returned. In July 1975 when the first elections were held in East Timor, the "Liberation Movement For the Independence of East Timor" (Frente Revolucionaria de Timor Leste), better known in its abbreviated form as Fretelin, achieved 55 percent of the votes and thus was the clear winner of the elections.

In August 1975 civil war broke out in East Timor, and Lemos Pires, the last Portuguese governor, hastily and without any farewell ceremonies left the island. His departure marked the ignominious end of 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule in East Timor, during which the island, with an illiteracy rate of 95 percent and a rate of baby deaths as high as 50 percent, as well as endemic tuberculosis and malaria, had become one of the poorest countries in the world.

On Nov. 28, 1975, the Fretilin declared the independence of East Timor and the foundation of the new "Democratic Republic East Timor". In reaction to this development, the Indonesian government began to invade East Timor on Dec. 7, 1975. After a short military campaign, Indonesia occupied East Timor in totality. Half a year later, on July 17, 1976, Indonesia unilaterally changed the international status of East Timor and made it the 27th province of the Federation of Indonesian states.

The period 1975-1999, during which East Timor was occupied by Indonesia, was marked by continuous resistance from among the Timorese population against the Indonesian occupation. To break the resistance against Indonesian rule thousands of Timorese people were displaced from their villages and concentrated in closed settlements, young women were sterilized, and attempts were made to destroy the local culture by prohibiting the use of local languages as well as the Portuguese language and at the same time enforcing the Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia) as the only officially recognized language and teaching medium in all schools. The accusation that Indonesia has committed a crime of genocide against the population of East Timor often voiced in the international media, therefore, is not unfounded, if one considers the fact that during the period of the Indonesian occupation of East Timor from 1975-1999 more than 200,000 people lost their lives, equivalent to one-third of the total population of the island.

During the nearly 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule (1596-1975), the Catholic Church proved to be a reliable partner of the Portuguese colonial rulers. But the Church made only modest efforts to adapt itself to the cultural traditions in East Timor. As regards the architecture of churches, the liturgical services, and the expressions of popular religiosity, all were completely following Portuguese examples. In addition, nearly all priests and religious leaders working in East Timor were expatriates, mostly Portuguese and Italians. The number of indigenous vocations to the priesthood or to religious life was rather small. When the Portuguese colonial rule ended in 1975, the Catholic Church was not prepared to fulfill a prophetic mission or to make active contributions to the development of the new era.

Decisive role

It came therefore as a surprise that the Catholic Church, nevertheless, was able to play such a decisive role during the political upheavals of the 1970s. The brutal measures taken by the occupying Indonesian military forced the Catholic Church willy-nilly to take a position against the injustices and to engage itself in the struggle for the human rights of the Timorese population. For the clergy and the religious leaders responsible in the Catholic Church it was not easy to take up commitments beyond the sector of strictly pastoral activities and to enter into a sector, which, even if the Church institutions denied it, could only be called "political". After all, the Catholic Church turned out to be the only force in a position to defend the human rights of the entire population during the political upheavals and the military oppression following the Indonesian Invasion of East Timor.

During this sad period in the history of East Timor, during which the Indonesian military and police committed countless violations of human rights, the Catholic Church acquitted admirably of its role to act as a critical observer, to be the advocate of the people, and to reprimand the Indonesian military and civil authorities.

The immense growth of the Catholic population

The Indonesian occupation forces also introduced in East Timor the regulation, valid everywhere in Indonesia, that every citizen has to belong to one of the five religions acknowledged by the government, namely Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Pressured to choose from among one of these five acknowledged religions, most members of the traditional religions opted for the Catholic faith, because Islam, as the religion of the occupying Indonesian military, was no eligible alternative for them. The implementation of this administrative regulation, therefore, resulted in a huge wave of conversions to the Catholic Church. Consequently, the number of Catholics grew from 30 percent of the population at the beginning of Indonesian rule in 1975 to 85 percent at the beginning of 2001.

It was not only the aversion against Islam as the religion of the oppressors which played a role in these conversions. There was the additional element that some Catholic ceremonies and rituals were close to or similar to those practiced within the traditional religions of indigenous peoples in East Timor, thus facilitating the transition to Christianity for the members of the old traditional religions.

In 1983, the Roman authorities relieved Bishop da Costa Lopes of his office as Apostolic Administrator of Dili Diocese, by giving in to pressure exercised by the Indonesian government and military, who had insisted on the removal of this "troublesome personage". Bishop da Costa had become a "persona non grata" for the Indonesian government because he had repeatedly condemned in public statements the violations of human rights and the unrestrained use of force exercised by the Indonesian military against the population of East Timor. At the same time, he had denounced the fact that the Catholic Church in Indonesia and the authorities in Rome did not condemn the atrocities committed by the Indonesian military and thus failed to show solidarity with the Catholics in East Timor.

Rome replaced Bishop da Costa Lopes and appointed in his place Carlos Ximenes Belo SMB, a young Salesian priest, and Apostolic Administrator of Dili. The appointment of Carlos Ximenes Belo came as a surprise because he was particularly unknown in East Timor and had returned to the island after lengthy studies in Rome and Portugal only in 1981. When in 1983 Bishop Belo took over the administration of Dili Diocese, then the only diocese on the island, the 700,000 Catholic faithful were divided into 30 parishes which were administered by just 71 priests. During the following years, the Indonesian security apparatus took great strains to observe and control closely Bishop Belo's pastoral activities, especially his activities in the field of human rights.

Papal visit

During his one-day visit to East Timor in October 1983, Pope John Paul II touched on the question of human rights during his sermon at a mass in the capital Dili which was attended by more than 200.000 faithful, but he avoided all harsh condemnation of Indonesian human rights violation and demanded from the East Timorese Catholics to forgive their oppressors. The liturgical highlight of the papal visit was the consecration of the new cathedral in Dili on Oct. 12, 1989. At the time of its consecration, the cathedral in Dili with its 2,000 seats was the biggest church in the whole of South East Asia.

How ineffective the integration policy of the Indonesian government really was, became obvious in the bloody event in November 1991 which became known as the "Dili Cemetery Massacre". On Nov. 12, 1991, the Indonesian military opened fire on a huge crowd of mourners assembled in the cemetery in Dili for the burial of a student who had been killed by Indonesian security agents. According to the official figures published by the government, 50 persons were killed, whereas independent observers and journalists present at the scene put the number of people killed as high as 500, with several thousand wounded.

By that time Bishop Belo already had become an internationally highly respected personality for his fight for human rights, which he continued undismayed in the face of the many threats and repressive measures by the Indonesian authorities. It came not as a great surprise, when in October 1996 Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with Jose Ramos Horta, the speaker of the "National Council of the Maubere Resistance", the umbrella organization of the resistance against the Indonesian integration policy in East Timor, who was living and working in Australia at the time.

As regards the future political developments in East Timor, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the two representatives of the cause of the people of East Timor played a very important role. After a period of political struggle, President Suharto was finally forced to resign on Aug. 30, 1999, after having been in power for 32 years. On the same day, a referendum was held in East Timor in which the Timorese people opted for independence by a vast majority of 78 percent. Violent actions taken by the Indonesian army and militias in September 1999 forced more than 500,000 East Timorese, that is over 60 percent of the population, to leave their homes and to flee to West Timor or into the mountains and forests to escape from the violence and from the chaos that followed. Many churches were burnt and much Catholic faithful together with some of their priests were killed.

On May 20, 2002, after 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule, 25 years of Indonesian occupation, and an interim administration by the United Nations, East Timor achieved full independence. During the thanksgiving mass on this occasion, Bishop Belo promised that the Catholic Church would continue to play the role of acting as an advocate of the people and to work for reconciliation within the population of East Timor and with Indonesia. During the first period of independence, another major challenge the new government had to tackle was to bring back the thousands of refugees and displaced persons. The Catholic Church contributed much to solving this national task by making use of its many organizations in the field of development assistance, health care, and charity.

New situation

When national independence had been achieved, the ecclesiastical structure in East Timor had to be adjusted to the new situation. Till 1996 the Diocese of Dili with over 700,000 faithful had been the only diocese on the island, in spite of the spectacular growth of Catholics in East Timor. Finally, in 1996 the Holy See reacted and created the new Diocese Baucau as a new ecclesiastical entity. On Jan. 6, 1997, Basilio do Nascimento was consecrated a bishop and nominated Apostolic Administrator of Baucau. The plan, however, to create in 2002 another new diocese, the Diocese of Same, which was to be carved out of from Dili Diocese, did not materialize. Instead, on Jan. 30, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI erected the Diocese of Maliana, headed by Bishop Norberto do Amaral. The realization of this plan to establish three dioceses has enabled the Catholic Church in East Timor to become an ecclesiastical Province and to form its own bishops' conference. This enabled the new Church province of East Timor to become a full member of the Federation of Asian Bishop's Conferences (FABC).

On Nov. 26, 2002, Bishop Carlos Belo suddenly resigned as Bishop and Apostolic Administrator of Dili for health reasons. (After recovering his health, Bishop Belo did not return to East Timor, but took up missionary work in Maputo, Mozambique in Southern Africa.) For nearly two years Bishop Basilio do Nascimento administered Dili Diocese in addition to his own Diocese of Baucau. On March 6, 2004, Alberto Ricardo da Silva was appointed as the new Bishop of Dili and consecrated on May 2, 2004.

(History compiled from - Georg Evers, The Churches in Asia, Delhi, 2005)


Mostly, the people of Timor Leste are farmers. Aileu, Ainaro, and Manufahi districts are popular for their agricultural products, such as cowpea, potato, cassava, and orange. Meanwhile, in the Ermera district, coffee and pineapple are the most popular agricultural products.


The access to information and telecommunications in the area served by the diocese is still poor. Telephone and Internet lines are hard to find. There is only one state-run television channel, which can be accessed just in districts with electrical power. 


The cooperation between the Church and government in the field of education is good. The problem is that there is no curriculum.


People in the six districts served by the diocese are from various ethnic groups including Bunak, Dawan, Kemak, Mambae and Marae.

People living in these districts have some traditional rituals, such as Koremetan (wearing black cloth on the 40th day after someone's death), Umaben (building a traditional house), Sau batar (thanking God for the first harvest of corn) and Umamanen (marital ceremony).

In the Dili district, there are traditional dances: Lorsa, Simu Surik, Boot, Likurai, Tebe-Tebe and Folklore.

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