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Timor Leste

Timor-Leste commemorates 500 years of Church presence

Mass held at the same site where St. John Paul addressed East Timorese in 1989

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Timor-Leste commemorates 500 years of Church presence

Timor-Leste Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau, left, and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin head to a Mass celebrating the Church's 500th anniversary in Timor-Leste. (Photo by Ryan Dagur)

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Some 8,000 Catholics packed an open coastal area on the west side of Dili, Timor-Leste's capital, to mark 500 years of the Church's presence on the island nation.

The Aug. 15 Mass was held at Tasitolu, the site of a 1989 Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II, when Timorese youth unfurled banners protesting Indonesian rule. The incident, one of the few times during the occupation that the East Timorese had an international audience, was considered a seminal moment of the resistance.

Catholics came from all over the island for the Mass, wearing traditional dress and displaying banners representing their dioceses, communities, schools and parishes.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the highest-ranking Church official to visit Timor-Leste since St. John Paul, was the Mass' main celebrant, which took place on the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

Other celebrants included Archbishop Joseph Marino, the apostolic nuncio to Timor-Leste, Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau, Bishop Norberto do Amaral of Maliana, and Italian Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the nuncio to Singapore, who served as nuncio to Timor-Leste from 2006-2013.

Cardinal Parolin told the congregation that the Church closely followed the country's struggle for independence and would continue to assist the fledgling nation.

“The Catholic Church ... is committed to continuing to walk with you, as you strive to achieve your highest aspirations as a nation, one built on justice, solidarity and peace,” the cardinal said.

The cardinal also referred to the Aug. 14 signing of the concordat between the Vatican and Timor-Leste, saying the accord is a means by which the Church and state can work in collaboration for the development and advancement of the country. 

Bishop Nascimento, president of the Timor-Leste bishops' conference, said the signing of the concordat intensifies the cooperation between the Church and the Timor-Leste government to better serve the country’s 1.2 million people, of whom 97 percent are Catholic.

“We are in an era of globalization. Cooperation between the Church and government is important in dealing with issues that affect the people of Timor-Leste,” Nascimento said.

A young woman displays the flags of the Vatican and Timor-Leste during an Aug. 15 Mass commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Catholic Church's presence in Timor-Leste. (Photo by Ryan Dagur)


At Tasitolu, a six-meter tall bronze statue commemorates John Paul's 1989 visit to Timor-Leste. At the end of the pope's Mass, police reportedly seized young men who approached the altar to draw the pope's attention to the plight of local people under Indonesian rule. International media reported the demonstrators were beaten and later tortured, a charge Indonesian officials denied.

Indonesia annexed the former Portuguese colony of East Timor as a province in 1976, after taking control the previous year when the Portuguese colonial administration withdrew amid mounting political tensions. Up to 200,000 East Timorese died due to famine, armed resistance and reprisals during Indonesia’s often bloody rule.

A large majority of East Timorese voted for independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum on Aug. 30, 1999, after which a pro-Jakarta militia went on a rampage that left hundreds dead. A transitional U.N. administration took over until the formal emergence of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste in May 2002.

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