printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

East Timor


International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Share

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 discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. Embassy officials maintained a steady dialogue with members of Parliament during their deliberations on legislation affecting religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography


The country has an area of approximately 5,406 square miles and shares the island of Timor with Indonesia's Nusa Tenggara Timur Province. Based on the most recent statistics available from the World Bank, the population of the territory is approximately 876,000. 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 generally tolerant.

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 approximately 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 have been 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 during the Indonesian occupations might have been better described as animists, a category not recognized by the Indonesian Government. Also, the number of Protestants, Muslims, and Hindus has declined significantly since September 1999, because these groups were disproportionately represented among supporters of integration with Indonesia and among the Indonesian civil servants assigned to work in the province from other parts of Indonesia, many of whom left the country in 1999. It also appears that commitment to Catholicism among formerly nominal Catholics increased during the Indonesian occupation, in part because the Church was perceived as sympathetic to the resistance and also because Catholicism came to be regarded as a distinctive feature of national identity. The most recent estimate is that 98 percent of the population is Catholic, 1 percent Protestant, and 1 percent Muslim. Most citizens also retain some vestiges of animistic beliefs and practices, which they have come to regard as more cultural than religious.

The Indonesian military forces formerly stationed in the country included among their ranks a significant number of Protestants, 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 are among those who have remained in West Timor. The Assemblies of God is the largest and most active of the Protestant denominations that continue to operate in the country. The country had a significant Muslim population during the Indonesian occupation, composed mostly of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands. There also are a few ethnic Timorese converts to Islam, as well as 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.

Domestic and foreign Catholic and Protestant missionary groups operate freely in the country. Missionaries and other religious officials of all religions who come to the country for religious purposes are exempt from paying visa fees.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

Although the Constitution was ratified in March 2002 and went into effect in May 2002, the Government continued to enforce Indonesian laws and UNTAET regulations not yet superseded by the Constitution or national 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 nondiscrimination, including religious nondiscrimination.

In October 2003, a law on immigration and asylum went into effect 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 bylaws, 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." Based in part upon this law, immigration authorities established residence and visa fees for foreigners residing in the country. Missionaries and religious figures have been exempted from these fees.

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 Saints Day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas Day.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

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

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

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversions

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.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

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

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 in the capital of Dili, despite the past association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian forces. Outside of the capital, non-Catholic religious groups sometimes have been viewed with suspicion.

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 the country in the 3 months after the International Force in East Timor (INTERFET) took control, but they 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, and in March the Government found that the majority of this group was residing illegally in the country as well as improperly occupying the mosque. At the end of the period covered by this report, the Government was investigating the case and seeking a solution acceptable to all parties. Despite some press reports to the contrary, religion is not at the core of the dispute. Rather, it stems chiefly from disagreements within the Muslim community about property rights and from the disputed citizenship claims of long-time ethnic Malay residents.

In late 2003, small groups of Catholic youths repeatedly stoned the mosque in Los Palos and harassed and intimidated the small local Muslim population. The situation was resolved several weeks later after a local Catholic leader joined a senior Islamic leader from Dili in a series of public meetings in Los Palos to discuss the importance of showing mutual respect to persons of different faiths.

At times non-Catholic Christian groups also have been harassed. While there were no further attacks on Protestant churches such as those that occurred in June 2000 in Aileu district, there were credible allegations of harassment, occasionally including violent attacks, against members of Protestant denominations in the areas of Baucau, Los Palos, Ainaro, and Liquica. According to Protestant leaders, individuals converting from Catholicism to Protestantism often were subject to harassment by family members and neighbors, and in some cases, clergy and missionaries have been threatened or assaulted. In several instances, village leaders have refused to allow missionaries to proselytize in their villages, and in at least one case a Protestant group was unable to build a chapel because of stiff opposition from neighbors and local officials. Most Protestant leaders report that Catholic Church officials and government authorities have been helpful in resolving disputes and conflicts when they occur.

One case reported in 2002 involved attacks in the Liquica area on a Brazilian Protestant evangelist and local residents whom he had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. While the authorities have investigated, no arrests have been made and petty harassment has continued.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote 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 dialogue with Members of Parliament during their deliberations on legislation affecting religious freedom. The U.S. Government provided 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. Embassy representatives met with the leaders of all major religious communities in the country to discuss religious freedom issues.



Back to Top
Sign-in

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.