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East Timor


International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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During the period covered by this report, the country was governed by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) from October 25, 1999 up until independence on May 20, 2002. During the UNTAET administration, regulations provided for freedom of religion, a right that was generally respected in practice. Since independence the new Government has continued to adhere to the UNTAET policy of freedom of religion. There were no arrests in cases related to societal religious violence or attacks against churches and mosques (see Section III).

The Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities vary, given the past association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian military forces. Since the early months of independence, public attitudes toward religious minorities have not changed.

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with the UNTAET in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The U.S. Government regularly expresses support to the leaders of the new Government for independence and for the consolidation of constitutional democracy, including respect for basic human rights such as religious freedom. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has publicly stated that it is understandable for minority groups to preserve unique religious and cultural traditions, and that there should be no discrimination or favoritism as that would prove to be a dangerous policy.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of approximately 5,406 square miles, and shares the island of Timor with Indonesia's bordering Nusa Tenggara province. Based on the civil registration carried out by the UNTAET from March to June 2001, the population of the territory is 739,652. According to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as many as 60,000 East Timorese remained across the border in West Timor by the end of the period covered by this report. The majority of the population is Catholic. According to statistics issued by the former Indonesian administration in 1992, approximately 90 percent of the population was registered officially as Catholic, approximately 4.0 percent as Muslim, 3.0 percent as Protestant, and approximately 0.5 percent as Hindu. There is no information 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, right after the vote to begin the process leading toward independence, as these groups were associated strongly with the groups that sought integration with Indonesia. The Indonesian military forces formerly stationed in the country included a significant number of Protestants among 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 Protestants remained in West Timor at the end of the period covered by this report. There had been a significant Muslim community during the Indonesian occupation, mostly made up of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands. There also were a small number of Muslims of Arabic Descent who had lived in the country when it was under Portuguese authority. This group was well integrated into society, but ethnic Malay Muslims often were not. Only a few hundred of ethnic Malay Muslims remained in the country following the 1999 vote to begin the process towards independence (see Section III).

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

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The new Constitution formally replaced the UNTAET regulations and administration of the country on May 20, 2002. The Constitution was ratified in March 2002 and went into effect in the first hour of the date of independence, May 20, 2002. Indonesian legal requirements that each citizen be a member of one of Indonesia's officially recognized religions no longer apply under the independent Government. Police cadets receive training in equal enforcement of the law and non-discrimination, including religious non-discrimination. The UNTAET regulations provided for freedom of religion and the UNTAET generally respected this right in practice. The administration at all levels generally protected this right, and there were no arrests in cases related to societal religious violence or attacks against churches and mosques (see Section III). The Constitution was ratified in March 2002, and requires the State to recognize and to respect different religious denominations, which are free to organize and carry out their activities, as long as such activities are conducted in accordance with the Constitution and the law. Under the Constitution, the Government also is responsible for promoting cooperation among the different religious denominations. In addition, the Constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship for all persons, and stipulates that no one shall be persecuted or discriminated against on the basis of his or her religious convictions.

The Constitution provides for the separation of church and state, however, during the popular consultations for the Constitution, many members of the public expressed their desire for the Constitution to declare Roman Catholicism as the official religion. Earlier, Bishop Belo, the senior Catholic prelate and a Nobel laureate, had requested the Constituent Assembly not establish a national religion.

There have been allegations that Muslims were unfairly denied the right to vote in the presidential election of April 2002. The voter eligibility rules were clear prior to the election just as they were for the Constituent Assembly election of 2001 and the independence referendum of August 1999. The criteria are: individuals had to be born in the country; or b) individuals born abroad needed at least one parent born in the country; or c) an individual had to have a spouse who met either the conditions of (a) or (b). Religion was never a criterion. If any prospective voters were denied eligibility, it was because they could not meet any of the three clearly and publicly stated criteria.

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion 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

The UNTAET's policy and practice have contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion; however, there have been incidents of violence between religious groups. There were no arrests in cases related to societal religious violence or attacks against churches and mosques (see Section III). The UNTAET's ability to respond to such attacks was hindered by insufficient prison space and judicial and police resources. In addition the 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.

The strong and pervasive influence of the Catholic Church can have an effect on government officials. Representatives of Protestant churches and the Islamic community also have some political influence. In the district of Maliana, a Protestant ministry pastor reported that he applied to the district government in the last year of the UNTAET Administration to rent abandoned property for the purpose of engaging in humanitarian, educational, and religious work. The official in charge, a Catholic, warned that the Catholic Church in the area would oppose such a rental to a Protestant organization, and that it might cause trouble with rank-and-file Catholics. The pastor subsequently withdrew the request to set up a facility in Maliana, choosing instead to file another request after the new Government was installed. At the end of the period covered by this report, the pastor still had not filed another request to set up a facility in Maliana. The pastor has reported good relations with local Catholic priests and the public and has felt more comfortable moving about the district.

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 the 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 the country and its priests and bishops are accorded the highest respect in local society. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities vary, given the past association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian forces. In the months since independence, attitudes have not changed.

Some Muslim groups at times have been victims of harassment. The Dili mosque remains inhabited by approximately 250-300 ethnic Malay Muslim migrants, according to the Government and private community workers' best estimates, who initially fled during the violence of September 1999. Some of the migrants returned in the 3 months after the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) took control, but fear returning to their homes. Their occupation of the Dili mosque has created tensions with Muslims of Arabic descent, some of whom want the Government to remove the ethnic Malay Muslims from the mosque. However, the Arabic Muslim community has been reluctant to seek the necessary court order required for eviction. The ethnic Malay Muslims claim that they might face hostility if required to reenter the community at large. However, there is no evidence that they would not be able to practice their faith; or that religion is at the core of the dispute; rather, the dispute appears to stem more from property rights issues and the eligibility of citizenship for long-time Indonesian citizens who are residents rather than from 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 UN Rapid Reaction Unit from Jordan that was based nearby. The mosque was rebuilt by the community with the financial assistance of foreign donors. On December 31, 2000, local gangs attacked and vandalized the area around the mosque that harbors Dili's small Malay Muslim community, injuring 3 persons. The mosque members' resistance to the gang's demand for a car apparently precipitated the violence.

At times Protestants also have been harassed; the Catholic Bishop of the region around Baucau instructed local Catholics to avoid association with a Protestant evangelical group in Baucau, after which there were some reports of stone throwing and other acts of sporadic harassment. The evangelicals subsequently moved into more rural areas of the Baucau district, where they experienced no further incidents, and apparently have been able to practice their faith. 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 the 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 church leaders promoted reconciliation between the local Protestant and Catholic communities, and the local Catholic Church took the lead in a project to rebuild 3 destroyed Protestant churches.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with the UNTAET in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The U.S. Government regularly expresses support to the leaders of the new Government for independence and consolidation of constitutional democracy, including respect for basic human rights such as religious freedom. Additionally, the U.S. Government maintained a steady dialog with Constituent Assembly members during enactment of the various articles of the Constitution, allowing for a clear enunciation of U.S. support for religious freedom. Organizations funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development worked closely with the Constituent Assembly to ensure protections for basic rights, such as freedom of religion, in the Constitution.



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