The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and specifies “religious denominations are separated from the State.” It also prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs and guarantees both the right to conscientious objection and freedom to teach any religion. The constitution protects freedom of religion in the event of a declaration of a state of siege or state of emergency.
There is no official state religion; however, the constitution commends the Catholic Church for its participation in the country’s liberation efforts. A concordat between the government and the Holy See establishes a legal framework for cooperation, grants the Catholic Church autonomy in establishing and running schools, provides tax benefits, safeguards the Church’s historical and cultural heritage, and acknowledges the right of its foreign missionaries to serve in the country.
Religious organizations that simply conduct religious services do not need to register with the government and can obtain tax-exempt status from the Ministry of Finance. Religious organizations seeking to open private schools or provide other community services must submit articles of association and other relevant documentation to register as nonprofit corporate bodies through the Ministry of Justice’s National Directorate for Registry and Notary Services (DNRN). The law requires a separate registration with the Ministry of Interior for associations with primarily foreign members, including religious organizations, which must submit their articles of incorporation, proof they have the means to carry out their activities, and the name of a designated representative. To receive a tax identification number, organizations must register first with the Ministry of Justice and then bring that registration to the Service for Registration and Verification of Businesses, the business registration agency. The DNRN then issues a certificate and legally charters the organization.
The Ministry of Education classifies religious study as an optional elective subject in public schools. Most schools in the country are public, although the Catholic Church also operates its own private schools.
The law states “foreigners cannot provide religious assistance to the defense and security forces, except in cases of absolute need and urgency.” Foreign citizen missionaries and other religious figures are exempt from paying normal residence and visa fees. Visa regulations are the same for all foreign religious workers, regardless of religious affiliation.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Muslim leadership reported discrimination against Muslims joining civil service positions based on their names, including with the National Police and the Defense Force, as well as medical positions in local hospitals.
Despite 2017 legislation approving recognition of religious minority documents, Muslim and Protestant religious minority leaders again reported notaries public rejecting marriage and birth certificates from religious organizations other than the Catholic Church as supporting documentation for registering for schools and other official acts. The leaders stated this occurred on an ad hoc rather than systematic basis, and authorities resolved the incidents by addressing them with the notarial office director. In addition, reportedly many religious minorities remained unaware of the 2017 legislation. Registrations of births and marriages with the government continued to be available, but civil registration rates remained relatively low in comparison with registration for religious certificates. Religious minority leaders met with the prime minister on November 6 and discussed recognition of non-Catholic certificates and proposed further changes to the 2017 legislation approving recognition of religious minority documents, among other issues. Protestant and Muslim leaders said they would continue to engage the Offices of the President and Prime Minister to recognize non-Catholic certificates, as delineated in the 2017 law.
The Office of the Prime Minister provided a budget allocation to the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Timor-Leste and transferred $1.5 million of funds to each of the country’s three Catholic dioceses. The terms of the concordat with the Holy See governed the allocations. The direct budget allocations to the Catholic Church again caused some tension with non-Catholic religious groups, according to minority religious leaders. Catholics and all other religious groups could apply, along with other organizations, for part of a $3.5 million government fund set aside for civil society organizations during the year. According to an official in the Prime Minister’s Office, the fund supported the construction of a Protestant church and the construction of an orphanage in a mosque for the Muslim community. According to a Muslim leader, this orphanage was the only Islamic project the Office of the Prime Minister supported during the year.
Several Catholic holidays were also national holidays, and Catholic religious leaders regularly presided over government ceremonies.