Evangelical Protestants make inroads into Timor-Leste

Success of new Brazilian group in the tiny half island nation has Catholic majority looking over their shoulder
Evangelical Protestants make inroads into Timor-Leste

Brazilian Pastor Elienae Moura at the 12th anniversary of the evangelical church he leads in Timor-Leste in January 2018. (Photo supplied)

Jose de Oliviera, 46, was working in the Manu Fahe restaurant in Manufahi District on the south coast of Timor-Leste, about six hours drive from the capital Dili, when some Brazilian missionaries came to call.

"I liked their message and after a while, every Wednesday, a group of us would get together with them and pray," de Oliviera tells ucanews.com.

Then a Catholic, like as much of 90 percent of the country, at least nominally, he responded to the message from the missionaries.

"When I learned to be evangelical and practiced it, my life changed a lot and I have seen a lot of changes in myself," he says.

"When I was young I [was] always drunk and fighting with others. I was a thief before I became evangelical. I was a smoker, but since I converted I have freed myself from these bad habits.

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"When I converted most of my wife's family, my family hated me and even threatened me. I did not force my family to join me but my wife, my mother and my sister eventually followed me."

Timor-Leste is very much a majority Catholic country due to the influence of its Portuguese colonial masters for 500 years, as well as in reaction to the Indonesian occupation after Portugal walked away from its colonies in 1974. At the time and into the 1980s, many who practiced traditional animism converted to the Catholic Church as a "safe haven" from the Muslim overlords they were battling in the jungles.

Protestant missionaries of many stripes have tried their hand — and succeeded in many instances — at converting the locals. The Protestant Church of East Timor was established in 1979. Still, traditional animist religions keep thriving in Timor-Leste, particularly away from the major towns in the half island nation of 1.3 million people, often in tandem with Catholicism.

One of the latest arrivals, in 2006, was a well-funded group from Brazil who shared a common colonial heritage and language with this tiny nation, half a world away: the Igreja Evangelica Visao Crista de Timor-Leste (IVTL), or The Vision of Christ Evangelical Church.

IVTL is a branch of a major Brazilian evangelical Protestant church originally founded in that country by Canadian missionaries. After IVTL was founded in Timor-Leste with 36 Brazilian missionaries, locals were later trained, ordained, and worked alongside them.

Julio Cuca is based in Baucau District, home to the country's second city that shares the same name, said he decided to join the Protestant faith, along with his 10 brothers and sisters.

"I was an animist in 1982 when the missionaries from the Protestant Christian Church in East Timor in Atauro Island came to Aileu District," he tells ucanews.com.

"My family background is animism and we were converted into the evangelical church."

Cuca and his family eventually moved to the IVTL and he decided to become a pastor in the church. He studied in Ambon, an island in the northeast of the Indonesian province Maluku, which has a history of sectarian violence. Ambon is about 70 percent Christian with 40 percent of those evangelical, according to The Joshua Project, an evangelical website.

"I studied theology and agriculture. We have very good relations with the church in Kupang [the major city on the Indonesian half of Timor] and in Ambon and we are also working very closely with the churches in Australia and Singapore, " Cuca says. In 2008 the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was set up by Australian missionaries and claims over 4,000 members.

Cuca now acts as a coordinator for the evangelicals in four districts in the east of the country: Lautem, Baucau, Viqueque and Manatuto.

 

According to The Joshua Project, evangelical churchgoers in Timor-Leste are growing at 3.6 percent per year compared to a global average of 2.8 percent.

But numbers are very hard to pin down, as they are with any religion, especially in poorer nations where new groups come in to provide basic services like food and healthcare that governments either can't or won't afford, with corruption always being a major issue.

Father Martinho Gusmao, the outspoken head of Sts Peter and Paul Major Seminary in Dili, believes that the number of Protestants, mainly evangelicals, in Timor-Leste may be as high 10 percent.

"The evangelicals are definitely a threat to the Catholic Church but poor people will take their food, pray with them and do the same when the Catholic caregivers come around," he told ucanews.com during the recent election in May.

 

Replacing foreigners

Pastor Elienae Moura, a 37-year-old Brazilian, is the last foreign missionary. 

"At the right time we began replacing the foreigners, so they could go back to their country; now we have only one foreign pastor [myself], as an overseer, and 20 local leaders of churches," says Pastor Moura.

Moura admits that although many people have accepted Jesus through the preaching of the missionaries and local pastors, they often revert.

"Because they have to face huge challenges to remain faithful, like prejudice from friends and society, discrimination, persecution, pressure from family, friends, community, and the temptations of human weakness, many of them get back to their old lifestyle, so only about 50 percent remain faithful," Moura says.

"It happens mainly because our church is clear in its teaching. In order to be a real follower of Christ, the new believers have to renounce their old animism beliefs, which is commonly regarded as 'culture'."

Both Cuca and de Oliviera, who has also become a pastor and runs the IVTL in Dili, admit they have faced obstacles after their conversions, including violence and people attempting to burn down their houses.

"But we will never give up," Cuca says. "We know those people who came from other religions and who made threats toward our lives, but we don't care."

"The evangelical faith already exists and it is growing. We always pray for the good for those who are sick, we pray to cure people's illnesses, but we do not force them to join us. But some people, after getting healthy, decided to join the evangelicals."

The trend of Catholics converting to evangelical Protestantism can also be seen across the Asia Pacific; in Southeast Asia it has become successful in the Philippines and Catholic areas in Indonesia.

In Brazil itself, the Catholic Church's biggest global stronghold in terms of numbers, 40 million people in the 2010 census, or about 22 percent of the country, identified as Protestant, mainly from evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

"Most of our new converts are from other religions and many of them from Catholicism", de Oliviera says.

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