National Catholic Reporter

October 11, 1996

page 24


In 1975 the Indonesian army invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, claiming it had been invited in by Timorese leaders. Since then, the story when it does get out from the isolated island has been one of military occupation, political repression, bloodshed and distant cries for help [story, page 12].

In the midst of this struggle, a courageous voice has connected the anguish of East Timor's 600,000 overwhelmingly Catholic population to the outside world. That voice belongs to East Timor Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

For his commitment to human dignity and nonviolence, it is time for Belo to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It may soon be too late.

Recognition of Belo would focus world attention on East Timor, a spotlight that is long overdue. It would also protect this bishop's life.

Belo has long posed a problem for the repressive Suharto government in Jakarta. As long as the Indonesian authorities can keep the lid on what's happening in East Timor, it can rely on the international community to leave its brutal annexation unopposed. Belo, however, using the prestige of his office, continues to prick at consciences abroad. He repeatedly speaks out against the behavior of the Indonesian troops and has circulated a petition among the world's bishops calling for a U.N. - sponsored referendum in East Timor on the territory's future.

His campaign has not gone far, but it would gain momentum if the bishop were awarded the peace prize.

The immediate problem is that Belo is tempting the same fate as did El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a right-wing death squad in 1980. Certainly, the comparisons are striking. Before he was appointed bishop, Belo, like Romero, was considered a reserved and malleable cleric, more given to studying the gospel than to acting on it. In office, Belo, again like Romero, quickly underwent a profound conversion that led to his involvement in the struggle of his people. In El Salvador, some 70,000 were brutally killed; estimates in East Timor are 100,000 to 200,000.

Belo's cause, unfortunately, has not found much sympathy either with the Indonesian episcopate or with the Vatican. The Indonesian bishops have condemned human rights violations in East Timor, but they also accept that the territory is now the 27th province of Indonesia. Moreover, if they succeed in having the East Timorese church incorporated into the Indonesian church Belo currently holds his office directly from Rome as the apostolic delegate they may be even less willing to rock the boat in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.

Pope John Paul II has spoken out against abuses in East Timor. But he has hedged his bets by calling on both sides to show restraint and on the East Timorese especially to "love and pray for their enemies." Moreover, when he visited East Timor in October 1989, he disappointed many East Timorese by failing to kiss the tarmac in Dili, the capital his trademark recognition that he has arrived on the soil of a sovereign state

Officially, however, the church does not recognize Indonesia's annexation of East Timor.

Speaking last year about the desperate situation, Belo said: "No one can speak. No one can demonstrate. People disappear. We live as if under the old Soviet Union regime. For the ordinary people, there is no freedom, only a continuing nightmare." He added that contact with the outside world is vital. "It gives us hope and some of us protection.... More films please, more conferences, more letters. ..... Keep speaking, everyone must keep speaking about us."

We must keep those voices alive.