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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

East Timor

International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

During the period covered by this report, East Timor was governed by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). Elections for a constituent assembly charged with producing East Timor's first constitution were scheduled for August 30, 2001; however, by the end of the period covered by this report, the date of independence remained uncertain. UNTAET regulations provide for freedom of religion, and UNTAET generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and UNTAET's policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

The Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution in East Timor. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities vary, given the previous association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian military forces.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with UNTAET in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

East Timor, which comprises approximately 5,406 square miles, shares the island of Timor with Indonesia's bordering Nusa Tenggara province. Based on the civil registration carried out by UNTAET from March to June 2001, the population of the territory was 739,652. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, as many as 50,000 to 80,000 East Timorese remained across the border in West Timor by the end of the period covered by this report. The population of East Timor overwhelmingly is Catholic. According to statistics issued by the former Indonesian administration in 1992, approximately 90 percent of East Timorese were registered officially as Catholics, approximately 4.0 percent as Muslim, 3.0 percent as Protestant, and approximately 0.5 percent as Hindu. There are no figures available on the number of Buddhists in the country. However, the above statistics may not be completely accurate because under the Indonesian administration, every resident was required to register as an adherent to one of Indonesia's five recognized religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism). A significant percentage of those registered as Catholics probably were better described as animists, a category not recognized by the Indonesian government.

It is likely that the number of Protestants, Muslims, and Hindus has declined markedly since September 1999, since these groups were associated strongly with the prointegration side. The Indonesian military forces formerly stationed in East Timor included a significant number of Protestants in their ranks, who played a major role in establishing Protestant churches in the territory. Less than half of those congregations still existed after September 1999, and many East Timorese Protestants remained in West Timor at the end of the period covered by this report. East Timor also had a significant Muslim community during the Indonesian occupation, mostly comprised of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands. Only a few hundred of these Muslims returned to East Timor following the September 1999 devastation after the vote for autonomy from Indonesia, and most of them reside at or in close proximity to the mosque in Dili. In addition there is a small community of East Timorese Muslims of Arabic descent that has been integrated well into East Timorese society since Portuguese times.

A small number of Christian missionary groups operate in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

UNTAET regulations provide for freedom of religion and UNTAET generally respects this right in practice. The administration at all levels generally protects this right in full and does not tolerate its abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

UNTAET Regulation no. 1999/1 establishes the overall legal structure that protects religious freedom and all other human rights in the territory. Section Two of this regulation stipulates that all persons undertaking public duties or holding public office in East Timor shall observe internationally recognized human rights standards and adds that "they shall not discriminate against any person on any ground such as sex, race, color, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, association with a national community, property, birth or all other status." The provision specifically references the human rights standards reflected in a number of international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Until replaced by UNTAET regulations or subsequent legislation by democratically elected institutions of East Timor, the laws applied in East Timor prior to October 25, 1999, i.e., the Indonesian laws, remain in effect, insofar as they do not conflict with the observance of internationally recognized standards as outlined above. (The requirements of Indonesian law that each citizen be a member of one of Indonesia's officially recognized religion does violate the freedom of religion provisions of the UDHR and the ICCPR, and thus no longer is applicable in East Timor.)

Catholicism is the dominant religion of East Timor and the list of designated public holidays reflects this, including Good Friday, Assumption Day, All Saint's Day, Day of the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas Day.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

UNTAET's policy and practice contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion; however, there were no arrests in cases related to societal religious violence or attacks against churches and mosques (see Section III). UNTAET's ability to respond to such attacks was hindered by insufficient prison space and judicial and police resources. In addition UNTAET's tendency to encourage local reconciliation rather than punishing offenders was an additional factor behind its decision not to charge perpetrators of religious attacks.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of UNTAET's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution in East Timor and its priests and bishops are accorded the highest respect in local society. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities vary, given the previous association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian forces. Resentment of Muslims is based on ethnic and economic differences, in addition to the religion.

In March 2001, a mob burned the mosque in Baucau during a wave of general unrest and destruction in that city. It was believed that residents might have targeted the mosque as a result of local animosity toward a Jordanian Rapid Reaction Unit based nearby. On December 31, 2000, local gangs attacked and vandalized the area around the mosque that harbors Dili's small Malay Muslim community, injuring three persons. The mosque members' resistance to the gang's demand for a car apparently precipitated the violence.

At times Protestants also have been harassed; however, during the period covered by this report, there were no further attacks on Protestant churches such as those that occurred in June 2000, in Aileu district.

A lack of prison space, inadequate judicial and police resources, and a tendency to encourage local reconciliation rather than punishment of offenders were factors behind the decision of UNTAET authorities not to charge perpetrators of violence or attacks on churches and mosques (see Section II). In the case of the June 2000 Aileu incidents, the authorities and local churchmen promoted reconciliation between the local Protestant and Catholic communities, and the local Catholic Church took the lead in a project to rebuild three destroyed Protestant churches.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with UNTAET in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. 

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