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East Timor

International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

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

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The U.S. Government regularly expresses support to the Government for the consolidation of constitutional democracy, including respect for religious freedom and other basic human rights. With this goal in mind, the U.S. Government provided extensive support to the Justice Sector to ensure the development of judicial institutions that will promote the rule of law, and, through its implementing partners, has also provided technical advisors to the National Parliament to provide advice on, and to help draft, legislation that will strengthen democratic rule.

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 Timur province. Based on the civil registration carried out from March to June 2001, the population of the territory is approximately 740,000. The overwhelming majority of the population is Catholic, and the Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities are tolerant, despite the past association of members of these groups with the occupying Indonesian military forces.

In a United Nations-administered consultation vote on August 30, 1999, an overwhelming majority of East Timorese voted against autonomy and, in effect, for independence from Indonesia. As a result, Indonesian forces began a violent withdrawal from East Timor that forced almost 200,000 people to flee across the border to West Timor. The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) subsequently governed the country from October 25, 1999 until independence on May 20, 2002.

According to statistics issued by the former Indonesian administration in 1992, approximately 90 percent of the population was registered officially as Catholic, approximately 4 percent as Muslim, 3 percent as Protestant, and approximately 0.5 percent as Hindu. However, the above statistics may not be completely accurate because during the Indonesian occupation, every resident was required to register as an adherent to one of Indonesia's five recognized religions (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism). Some observers believe that a significant percentage of those registered as Catholics are better described as animists, a category not recognized by the Indonesian Government. Also, the number of Protestants, Muslims, and Hindus has likely declined since September 1999, because these groups were disproportionately represented among supporters of integration with Indonesia. Many pro-integrationists fled to Indonesia shortly after the 1999 referendum and have not returned to East Timor. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 25,000 former residents remained in Indonesian West Timor at the end of the period covered by this report.

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. Fewer 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. The Assemblies of God is the largest and most active of the Protestant sects that continue to operate in East Timor. The country had a significant Muslim population during the Indonesian occupation, mostly made up of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands, in addition to a small number who descended from Arabic Muslims living in the country while under Portuguese authority. The latter group was well integrated into society, but ethnic Malay Muslims often were not. Only a few hundred ethnic Malay Muslims remained in the country following the 1999 vote for independence.

A small number of Catholic and Protestant missionary groups operate in the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Though East Timor's Constitution was ratified in March 2002 and went into effect on May 20, 2002, the Government continued to enforce Indonesian laws and UNTAET regulations that have not yet been superseded by the Constitution or East Timorese legislation. 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 Government generally protected this right, although the newly established police force and legal system were slow to respond to allegations of criminal acts against members of minority religious groups. The Indonesian legal requirement that each citizen be a member of one of Indonesia's officially recognized religions is no longer applicable. Police cadets receive training in equal enforcement of the law and non-discrimination, including religious non-discrimination.

On April 30, Parliament passed an Immigration and Asylum Law that contains two articles concerning religion. The first requires religious associations to register with the Minister of Interior if most or all of the association's members are foreigners; registration entails submitting documents setting forth objectives, statutes or by-laws, and a membership list. The second provision provides that "foreigners cannot provide religious assistance to the Defense and Security Forces, except in cases of absolute need and urgency." Although the President vetoed the law after the Court of Appeals deemed certain provisions unconstitutional, the Court found neither of the provisions concerning religion to be unconstitutional. Therefore, they will presumably take effect when Parliament re-enacts the law, expected in the fall of 2003.

During the drafting of the Constitution, many members of the public expressed their desire to declare Roman Catholicism as the official religion. Ultimately, the drafters provided for separation of church and state in the Constitution; however, Catholicism remains the dominant religion. Most designated public holidays are Catholic holy days, including Good Friday, Assumption Day, All Saint's Day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas Day.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government's policy and practice have contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion; however, incidents of violence against certain religious groups have occurred in the past, and there were reports of attacks on one such group during the year (see Section III).

The strong and pervasive influence of the Catholic Church may sometimes affect the decisions of government officials. However, representatives of Protestant churches and the Islamic community also have some political influence and hold high positions in the Executive Branch of Government and in the National Parliament.

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 generally are friendly, despite the past association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian forces.

Some Muslim groups at times have been victims of harassment. The Dili mosque remains inhabited by approximately 250-300 ethnic Malay Muslim migrants, who initially fled during the violence of September 1999. These migrants returned to East Timor in the 3 months after the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) took control but expressed fear of returning to their homes. They claim that they may face hostility if required to re-enter the community at large. 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. There is no evidence that religion is at the core of the dispute; rather, most observers believe that it stems more from disagreements about property rights and the disputed citizenship claims of long-time ethnic Malay residents.

On December 4, 2002, a student demonstration in front of the National Parliament in Dili degenerated into violence. Two rioters were killed and 15 seriously injured. A mosque sustained damages during the unrest, for which Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo apologized to the Muslim community. Of the 80 participants arrested, none were specifically linked to the attack on the mosque, although the charges in many cases were broad enough to cover involvement in the mosque attack.

In April an East Timorese Muslim family, who had been living in West Timor and wished to return to their home in Liquica, reported that at a "reconciliation meeting" in their village, the District Administrator told them that Muslims were not welcome in the community. However, the family did return to their village and they have not experienced harassment.

At times Protestants also have endured harassment. 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. However, allegations of harassment surfaced, including violent attacks, against a Brazilian Protestant evangelist in the Liquica area and against local residents whom he had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. In May a woman claimed that three members of her family, two of whom were police officers, threatened her and struck her after having accused her of humiliating the family by her conversion. The woman did not make a formal complaint to police and the alleged crime was never prosecuted. In June another Liquica man claimed that three men, including a local teacher, threatened him with violence because of his decision to convert. The prosecutors to whom he complained told the parties to settle the case outside of the formal justice system, as is common in cases not involving major violence. Later in June, a preliminary court hearing was held involving an alleged attack on the Brazilian minister himself. There were no further developments in the case by the end of the period covered by this report.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom with the Government 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 Government for consolidation of constitutional democracy, including respect for basic human rights such as religious freedom. Additionally, the U.S. Government maintained a steady dialog with members of Parliament during their deliberations on legislation affecting religious freedom. The U.S. Government provides extensive support to the justice sector to encourage the development of judicial institutions that will promote the rule of law and ensure respect for religious freedom as guaranteed in the Constitution.

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