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East Timorese prez says his country to be 'force for peace in world'

Jose Ramos-Horta toured Newark's Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart while he was in the area on April 30
Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta delivers a speech during the commemorate session at the Belem Cultural Center to celebrate the Carnation Revolution's 50th anniversary in Lisbon on April 25.

Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta delivers a speech during the commemorate session at the Belem Cultural Center to celebrate the Carnation Revolution's 50th anniversary in Lisbon on April 25. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 11, 2024 04:50 AM GMT
Updated: May 11, 2024 04:59 AM GMT

East Timorese President and Nobel Peace Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta's recent visit with Newark's Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin and Auxiliary Bishop Manuel A. Cruz was an experience of "fraternity and leadership," the bishop said afterward.

Ramos-Horta, who also toured Newark's Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, was in the area April 30 as the distinguished speaker of the 2024 Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society Visiting Professor event at Rutgers University in Newark. The president, who has an honorary degree from Rutgers, also delivered a speech, "Lessons on War and Peace from a Village in Southeast Asia," earlier that day.

Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, is a country in Southeast Asia that has undergone occupation and violence for centuries. The Catholic-majority country comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor -- of which the western half is administered by Indonesia. It became an independent nation in 2002, following over 400 years of Portuguese colonization, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, and three years of United Nations transitional administration. The nation is 97 percent Catholic, and the president's faith runs deep.

During the tour of the cathedral basilica, Ramos-Horta expressed awe over the space, especially the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, where St. John Paul II prayed before the Blessed Sacrament during his visit in 1995.

"He was totally stunned by the beauty of the cathedral basilica," Cardinal Tobin told Jersey Catholic, Newark's archdiocese news outlet. "He's studied in Europe and seen such buildings there, but he didn't expect to find one in northern New Jersey."

After the tour, Cardinal Tobin said, the president sat down with him in his residence. Ramos-Horta mentioned how important the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was during the struggle for independence of Timor-Leste.

"He mentioned that American bishops were able to reach the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, convince them of the cause of East Timor, and thereby ensure a peaceful transition to independence," Cardinal Tobin said.

For well over a decade, the USCCB through its international policy committee was outspoken in defense of the Catholic Church and the people of East Timor.

Ramos-Horta is a founder and former member of the political party called Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor and served as the exiled spokesperson for the East Timorese resistance during the years of the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999.

He received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1996, along with Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of Dili, for efforts to bring peace to Timor-Leste during the period it was under Indonesian control. He has been the president of Timor-Leste since 2022, having previously also held the position from 2007 to 2012. Prior to that, he was minister of foreign affairs from 2002 to 2006 and prime minister from 2006 to 2007. He survived an assassination attempt in February 2008.

"He mentioned how his small country is making every effort to live peaceably with some very large neighbors and be a force for peace in the world," Cardinal Tobin said. "Because of the country's poverty, many people born in Timor are in other countries now as well -- a notable population in Portugal and Great Britain. And so, he visited and encouraged them to be instruments of peace."

Bishop Cruz also enjoyed his time with President Ramos-Horta, who he found very impressive.

"Meeting President Ramos-Horta was a wonderful experience of fraternity and leadership," Bishop Cruz said. "It was a warm, cordial meeting, and it was wonderful to experience his deep faith and deep desire for peace."

Landmarks in the country's capital, Dili, speak to the country's struggles for independence as well as to its faith. The iconic 90-foot-tall Cristo Rei de Dili statue on a hilltop high over the city, and the statue of Mary at Mount Ramelau, the tallest summit in the country, illustrate Timor's devotion to the faith over the centuries.

Ramos-Horta, educated through the Catholic school system, has pushed for the church's involvement in a better educational system, saying it is one of the biggest problems for the people of Timor-Leste.

Cardinal Tobin said Ramos-Horta is "clearly a very erudite man" who is greatly motivated by his Catholic faith.

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