UCA News


´I Am Now An Assistant Priest,´ Bishop Belo Says

Updated: February 02, 2005 05:00 PM GMT
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Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo says his resignation as apostolic administrator of Dili in November 2002 benefited him personally and was good for the Church in then newly independent Timor Leste (East Timor).

Salesian Bishop Belo told UCA News Jan. 29 in Bangkok that poor health and stress were the main reasons for his resignation.

After Timor Leste became independent in May 2002, the bishop said, he was convinced the country needed a new Church leader. In his analysis the country did not need an "outspoken" and critical person like himself, who might only disrupt rather than help the rebuilding process.

After his sudden resignation, Bishop Belo, 57, went to Portugal in January 2003 to recuperate. In June 2004 he went to Maputo, capital of the southern African country of Mozambique, to work as assistant parish priest.

Bishop Belo was in Bangkok in late January to speak on peace education as part of a series of talks by Nobel laureates hosted by the International Peace Foundation. Bishop Belo and compatriot Jose Ramos-Horta jointly won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in what was then the Indonesian province of East Timor.

Indonesia sent troops into East Timor in 1975, following the outbreak of civil strife and the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial government. It "integrated" the territory as a province the following year, but Indonesian forces were not able to stamp out the independence movement, which enjoyed wide popular support. Up to 200,000 people died during Indonesian rule from famine, armed struggle or reprisals.

During that time Bishop Belo became a symbol of resistance to Indonesian rule over East Timor due to his defense of human rights.

The Indonesian government nullified the integration of East Timor after local people voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum the United Nations organized in 1999. The referendum results sparked renewed violence, with hundreds killed and much infrastructure destroyed in attacks led by pro-integration militia, supported by some factions within the Indonesian military.

Bishop Belo´s residence was the target of an attack. UCA News reported at the time that militiamen killed at least 30 people and injured 80 others among 2,500 people seeking shelter in the compound. Bishop Belo fled Dili for Baucau, where he stayed for six days before proceeding to Australia.

East Timor officially became the independent country of Timor Leste in May 2002, following two years under a transitional U.N. administration. About 95 percent of its 925,000 people are Catholics. The two dioceses of Dili and Baucau cover the country.

The UCA News interview with Bishop Belo follows:

UCA NEWS: What would you recommend to Asian bishops in promoting peace?

BISHOP CARLOS FILIPE XIMENES BELO: First, I don´t like to teach the bishops (laughs). They have the Holy Spirit and knowledge to guide them to be good shepherds of their flock.

Learning from Catholic Church teachings, we have to spread the ideas of mutual understanding and respect for others, and to solve problems through dialogue. At the political level, we can always suggest, depending on the problems prevalent at the place. Then we can follow this through a diplomatic approach. Beyond that, hopefully we, the missionaries and local people, are open to dialogue with others. The work to promote peace must be based on solidarity and fraternity, together with actions to improve the well-being of the situation and to pay attention to the poor, the marginalized, refugees, immigrants and so on.

I think every diocese already has commissions such as those for justice and peace. Hopefully, these commissions at the diocesan level can work together with other organizations to spread the idea of human rights, reconciliation and justice. Little by little the role of education, carried out by schools and parishes, can help make such work more active.

What did you learn from working with people opposed to and in favor of Indonesian rule in East Timor?

It was very difficult to work with both sides. In 1997 we organized this meeting outside Dili in a place called Dare. We had two such meetings and called them Dare 1 and Dare 2. We were able to invite the politicians of the two parties -- pro-integration and pro-independence movements -- to sit together for dialogue and to solve practical problems of the Timorese people´s daily life. They needed to understand how to promote reconciliation. We did not talk about politics, especially on defending integration or independence. But as Timorese we asked what were we doing to create understanding and to avoid violence from both sides. It was very difficult. We had to offer a generalized statement.

On another occasion a meeting was held in Jakarta before the referendum. In that meeting, people from abroad such as Jose Ramos-Horta (then living in exile) also participated. It was a small step to create this kind of dialogue among the two parties. After the discussion in this hot room, we had dinner and Mass and all of them sang together.

But unfortunately, sometimes politics is stronger and seen as more important, and political friction remained. It was so wrong, this violence in 1999 after the referendum for independence.

Even Catholics reportedly wanted to kill you.

Yes. I asked for help from the military. I got out of my residence because it was already in flames. The chief of police, a Christian, had sent a car to fetch me to his office. After talking, he asked me if I would want to go to the West (some Western country) or remain. I asked to talk to my colleague Bishop Basilio do Nascimento of Baucau. So these Indonesian officials offered me a helicopter to take me to Baucau. I stayed there six nights. On the seventh day, in the morning, I fled to Australia.

After the rampage, about 300,000 refugees fled to West Timor. What is the status of those who have not returned?

All of them are Timorese. The official number now is 36,000 still in West Timor. Some of them are really militia with their families and relatives. Others were civil servants of the Indonesian government and they prefer to stay there because of their children´s education in Indonesian schools. There are still many, many families who are common people, living in bad conditions in West Timor. They would like to go back but are forced to stay. I don´t know why. But they are still there.

Bishop do Nascimento went to West Timor personally. President Jose Alexander "Xanana" Gusmao also went there to talk to the people. At the national level there is a commission for truth and reconciliation. Many of the people returned to Dili and have been integrated in local society. However, the difficulty comes mainly from political leaders of the pro-integration party. They demand some conditions and so are still in West Timor. But in general, people in East Timor are waiting for our brothers to return. This is our land. We can all be Timorese in the independent country.

How is the development of the Church in East Timor coming along?

I left East Timor in January 2003. I went to Portugal for medical treatment, so I don´t have enough data to answer that question. But what I hear is mainly from the diocese of Dili, that the new bishop (Bishop Ricardo da Silva of Dili), the clergy and the laity have established guidelines for what they call the "re-evangelization of East Timor."

Already in 2001-2002 there were concrete signals that churches and chapels were not so full as before during Indonesian rule. The hierarchy was convinced that many of the Timorese might have become part of the Church only because of the political struggle. Since they now have independence, they care no more about religion. Now the Church is committed to re-evangelize, and I support that. It is important to have quality rather than quantity in the Church.

Did your pastoral priorities center more on reconciliation?

It is not only the reconciliation. Sometimes you have to speak out about human rights abuses. One of the reasons I stepped down, beside the health reason, was that I was thinking a long time ago that it was necessary to have new Church leadership. In a new situation, a new strategy for pastoral work should be set up. I was concerned that I belonged to the past -- for a specific moment to defend human rights and to criticize the government. Now there is another situation where you have to carry out more pastoral-oriented work than that of politics. So I decided to stay away, let new leadership take that step.

The main reason was health, because I was so stressed and I was very concerned about that. But I also had a personal conviction that at the political and religious level, the nation needed new leadership. I was so outspoken that this outspokenness now would not be good. Instead of helping, I would only disturb the country.

Why Maputo?

Well, the choice was to go to a Portuguese-speaking country, as I don´t know if I´m able to learn another language. After talking with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe (prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) and the rector major of the Salesian congregation, I chose Mozambique.

I am an assistant priest in Maputo. I do pastoral work by teaching catechism to children, giving retreats to young people. I have descended from the top to the bottom (laughs).

There is much work to be done in Mozambique. The country has to deal with malaria, poverty, AIDS and despair. It is a big task for Mozambicans and for the Church. One positive thing I learned from Mozambique is that after the Portuguese withdrew some bishops and priests in 1975, there were new Mozambican bishops. They began small Christian communities -- not like in South America, but with an African or even Mozambican style. In one parish there are small groups of 15-20 families who gather every Sunday. We have to do this in East Timor because the Church must involve families and Christians in their daily life to be more apostolic.

It is rumored that East Timor does not want to be part of the Federation of Asian Bishops´ Conferences (FABC). Is that true?

Well, I don´t know and I am not in the position of Bishops da Silva and do Nascimento. It depends on them. I think since East Timor is part of Asia, it is natural to be part of the FABC. In fact, during an FABC meeting in Bandung, (Indonesia) in which I participated, I wrote to Cardinal Jozef Tomko, then prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to the Jakarta archbishop and the FABC to ask for membership for Dili diocese. But I was criticized and the demand was not accepted by the FABC or by the Indonesian Bishops´ Conference. They said, "You are Timorese and you are part of the bishops´ conference of Indonesia, why are you asking for membership for the Diocese of Dili? You should be member of the Indonesian bishops´ conference."

I think the bishops should organize an ecclesiastical province in East Timor. It means that the three dioceses form their own bishops´ conference. Then they can become a member of the FABC. It is better to become a member of the FABC rather than join the Australia and Oceania conference. They (FABC and East Timor) face the same pastoral problems.

You said three dioceses?

There are now two. But in 1998, I made a recommendation to Rome to split Dili diocese in two and to create a new one in the South. It should be in the town of Samet. But it depends on the Holy See to decide. It makes more sense to join the FABC.

What challenges does East Timor now face in terms of reconstruction?

Mainly, the moral point of view is to give hope to the people and to work for their economic, social and culture development. I received letters from people saying they are disillusioned since there are no jobs. They don´t see big development in infrastructure. People are still waiting. We have to say to the people, "let´s work," not only wait for the government. Let´s work ourselves, encourage young people to study and give them hope.

Secondly, we hope the government will create good development programs for East Timor. We ask political leaders to be transparent and to provide good governance to serve the people.

Do you plan to return to East Timor?

I am going to visit East Timor on Monday (Jan. 31) to visit my relatives and to see the situation there. Then I will return to Maputo to finish my mission because I promised to work there for one year. I went there in June last year. I will stay there until June or July this year and then I will go back to East Timor. Well, you will find me working in the countryside (laughs).


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