Religions: Roman Catholic 96.9 percent, Protestant — Evangelical 2.2 percent, Muslim 0.3 percent, other 0.6 percent (2005). Figures on religion collected in 1992 (before independence) indicated that at that time the population was 90 percent Roman Catholic, 4 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 0.5 percent Hindu, and an undetermined number of Buddhists. Traditional animism was never officially recognized by the Indonesian government as a religion. The largest Protestant group is the Assembly of God. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

Portuguese influence during the centuries of colonial rule resulted in a substantial majority of the population identifying itself as Roman Catholic. Many of those who consider themselves Catholic practice a mixed form of religion that includes local animist customs. The East Timorese government reports that most Christians continue to practice animist traditions. A minority, called serani, do not. Most Tetum are Catholics although traditional religions remain. Most Atoni in northwestern Timor are Catholics while those in south-central western Timor and the Kupang area are Protestants. Observing the way animist and religious beliefs are blended is one of the interesting aspects of traveling in Timor.

East Timor has been nominally Catholic since early in the Portuguese colonial period. The Catholic faith became a central part of East Timorese culture during the Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999. While under Portuguese rule, the East Timorese had mostly been animist, sometimes integrated with minimal Catholic ritual, the number of Catholics dramatically increased under Indonesian rule. This was for several reasons: Indonesia was predominantly Muslim; the Indonesian state required adherence to one of five officially recognised religions and did not recognise traditional beliefs; and because the Catholic church, which remained directly responsible to the Vatican throughout Indonesian rule, became a refuge for East Timorese seeking sanctuary from persecution. [Source:]

According to the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations: The new government has generally respected the regulations for freedom of religion that were established by the United Nations Transitional Administration in Timor-Leste (UNTAET). Though public opinion had leaned toward making Catholicism the national religion, the presiding bishop, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo (a Nobel Peace Prize laureate), encouraged members of the Constituent Assembly not to make such a designation. The 2002 constitution instead provides for the freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and this right is generally respected in practice. Religious organizations must register with the Ministry of Interior if most or all of their members are foreigners. Due to past associations with Indonesian occupation groups, some Muslim and Protestant minorities have reported social harassment.” [Source: Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations, Thomson Gale, 2007]

One human rights advocate told the Los Angeles Times, “Religion is very important here and not in an abstract way. The church leaders are often the leaders in the community.” In the rampage after the independence referendum in 1999, the Catholic diocese office were all looted and burned. Churches have often been sought by people fleeing violence.

Religion and Politics in East Timor

The 'Apostolic Administrator' (de facto Bishop) of the Diocese of Dili, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, began speaking out against human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces, including rape, torture, murder, and disappearances. Following pressure from Jakarta, he stepped down in 1983 and was replaced by the younger priest, Monsignor Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, who Indonesia thought would be more loyal. However, he too began speaking out, not only against human rights abuses, but the issue of self-determination, writing an open letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, calling for a referendum. In 1996 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with exiled leader José Ramos Horta, now the country's Foreign Minister. [Source: ++]

In spite of accusations by the Suharto regime that East Timor's independence movement, Fretilin, was communist, many of its leaders had trained to be priests, and their philosophy probably owed more to the Catholic liberation theology of Latin America than to Marxism. However, in spite of the majority of the country's people now being Catholics, there is freedom of religion in the new republic, and the Prime Minister Marí Alkatiri, is a Muslim of Yemeni descent.

Animism in East Timor

Animism remains alive in East Timor both in its own right and integrated into Catholicism and other religions. Old trees, huge rocks, other landmarks and special dwellings call “uma” are revered as “lulik”, or sacred. Animals are considered spiritual beings, especially dogs and eels. Children are taught animist beliefs and the traditional creation of the crocodile, known as grandfather. Rituals involving magic, sacred houses, sacred clan regalia, propitiatory stones, and headhunting rituals have largely disappeared. East Timorese warriors were called “asu ain” ("dog feet") for their loyalty and courage. Offerings of rice, eggs and pigs are made to ancestors.

Animism refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. Derived from anima , the Latin word for soul, it was coined in 1871 by Edward Taylor to describe a theory of religion. Animism and ancestor worship are often closely linked. Animism is not the worship of animals.

Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too — -even trees and insects and things like special rocks and landscape formations — -have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.

Many anthropologists believe that animism developed out of the belief in some cultures that natural spirits and dead ancestors exist because they appear in dreams and visions. Other anthropologists speculate that the idea of spirits developed among early men out of the concept that something alive contains a spirit and something dead doesn’t, and when something alive dies its spirit has to go somewhere.

Klamar, (Souls of the Dead), Sorcerers and Vaginas in East Timor

Cliff Morris wrote: “A most important facet of Timorese life for Christians and non-Christians alike, was living with the KLAMAR (the souls of the dead) who had not gone to heaven or were unable to leave this earth for any reason. It was a Timorese belief that a wandering soul was always on the lookout to invade (or return to) the body of living persons where it would cause untold havoc and eventual death unless the klamar was persuaded to leave its new home. These spirits would enter the body through a number of body orifices. Their favourite entry sites were the nose or eyes, never through the mouth or genital orifices. Not all spirits were evil. Some in fact were guardians to keep the evil ones away and in times of danger would appear to warn their ward so that a degree of stability continued to exist. Living in the Animist world was a continual struggle to keep life flowing with as much stability as possible. The MATAN DOOK (doctor) could invoke all sorts of potions (herbal medicine) and fetishes to nullify a HOROK (spell) from a klamar or one placed by the BUAN (sorcerer), who had very wide powers to create havoc among everyone. His power was much stronger than the Matan Dook. The position of Matan Dook was handed on from father to son after many years of training. It was usually inherited among the Dato therefore it was a social status within the clan. The position of Buan could be inherited by any likely candidate with the proper aptitude after a long period of training and be either male or female, but usually male. A Buan had a religious standing in the community, which would give him a fearful respect. Even an important Liurai would treat a Buan with humble respect and fear. Within the orbit of the Animist religion all living things have souls, both plant and animal. Evil spirits came from creatures, especially those who spent the first half of their lives in water, and also came from the souls of people who lived a bad life. [Source:, A Traveller's Dictionary in Tetun-English and English-Tetun from the Land of the Sleeping Crocodile East Timor, 2003 ]

“Another being with supernatural power was the witch, in some areas known as KUKULASAK. In natural form she was an old woman, but had the power to transform herself into any other living thing. She could appear as a beautiful young woman to entice innocent people into sorts of danger with her beguiling ways. Every village had stories about witches appearing before some relative and by all sorts of trickery taking them away, never to be seen again. Some parents even told their children that witches like to eat people, especially plump, naughty children.

“In the Animist religion it is believed that we are on this earth for a short period and after death on this earth we would return to the womb of the earth through the many vaginas that exist in the FATU KUAK (caves) in Timor. Therefore we must live a good life to return to our origins at the completion of the ephemeral stay on earth. All tribal debts have been repaid by our surviving relatives in order to free the soul and enable a feast to be held to celebrate the spirit's passage to heaven. Every community has a legend about the first men appearing out of the earth to form their clan. In previous times Timor was a cashless society and the wealth of an individual was assessed by the amount of livestock that they owned, such as horses, buffaloes, goats, pigs as well as gold and silver. These animals were not used in everyday life as food. There was a much more important use for them; in life they showed how successful a person had been and in death many of these animals were slaughtered for the feast which sent the soul to heaven. Animals were NEVER sacrificed as a tribute to any religious ceremony, but as food for the invited guests. Feasts were held to celebrate births where the correct proportion of direct and in-law relatives were invited. As marriages were often arranged as political alliances rather than for any other reason, the guests at a birth feast could easily be from another kingdom far away. These feasts or gatherings served to reinforce obligations that each alliance placed on each clan and helped keep peace within the whole community.

“At planting time special ceremonies were conducted to placate the Klamar and ensured that the guardian Klamar knew the seeds were being planted in the womb of Mother Earth. The guardian Klamar could then ensure the seeds were fruitful. If the planting was carried out at the first rain but no following rain occurred then it was said that an evil spirit had killed the soul of the plant and not that the farmer had made a mistake by planting too early. At harvest time it was always a race to reap the crops before the rats consumes the year's crop. Rats, of course, were the work of an evil spirit. The same was said if the plants became diseased, or failed for any other reason, like too much rain.

“The UMA (house) in Timor was much more than a place for the family to live. In the Animist religion there was no church, and the family home served this purpose much better. The traditional house had two poles as its base foundation. These two poles represented the male and female (all things in Timor came in pairs), and divided the house into two areas, where the woman of the house ruled supreme. Because the house had this religious significance. The woman of the house acted as the religious head of the family. On the female pole hung the woven bags containing the dried placentas of the occupants of the house. These articles should follow each person throughout their life, otherwise they had no protection against any Klamar. Also each person would not be able to return to Mother Earth as whole person on their death.

“Disasters were accepted with stoic fatalism as the work of an evil spirit. Even accidents were ascribed to fetishes or invasions of spirits. Therefore the Timorese were able to accept the most horrific ill-fortune and still be able to carry on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Because of the importance of combating the effects of the Klamar, some people would change their name after a serious misfortune so that the Klamar would not know them any more, and nothing would persuade them to admit to being previously known by their prior name, which was very disconcerting for the Portuguese conducting the biannual census. During the Second World War the Australian soldiers in East Timor employed many adolescent boys to help them with their baggage. One day while being chased by the Japanese, we had to cross a flooded stream. The usual method was to enter the stream with the upstream leg bent and down stream leg stiff and by a forward hopping action progress across to the other bank. During the course of crossing two of the Timorese boys were hit by rocks along along the bed of the stream and were swept down stream and drowned. The Australian soldiers were most upset with such a tragic personal loss but the Timorese said, "We are here to protect the Australians. All the Australians are safe, and that is all that is important." It would have been very bad manners to have shown grief to us. There are many other instances that could be related about the care for other people the Timorese showed us during our war in Timor.

Catholicism in East Timor

The Roman Catholic Church in East Timor is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope in Rome. Since its independence from Indonesia, East Timor became only the second predominantly Catholic country in Asia (after the Philippines), a legacy of its status as a former Portuguese colony. About 88.84 percent of the population is Roman Catholic in East Timor as of 2006, which means over 900,000 faithful. Good Friday and Easter are big holidays in East Timor (See Below).[Source: Wikipedia +]

East Timor is divided into three dioceses: Dili, Baucau and Maliana (erected in 2010). These dioceses are immediately subject to the Holy See. The Apostolic Nuncio to East Timor is concurrently the nuncio to Indonesia. The current nuncio is Italian archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, and the nunciature is located in Jakarta. +

In the early 16th century, Portuguese and Dutch traders made contact with East Timor. Missionaries maintained a sporadic contact until 1642 when Portugal took over and maintained control until 1974, with a brief occupation by Japan during World War II. ndonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed the former Portuguese colony. The Church played an important role in society during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. While just 20% of East Timorese called themselves Catholics at the time of the 1975 invasion, the figure surged to reach 95% by the end of the first decade after the invasion. During the occupation, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo became one of the most prominent advocates for human rights in East Timor and many priests and nuns risked their lives in defending citizens from military abuses. +

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “The Catholic Church historically had a prominent role in the lives of the East Timorese people. Aside from providing spiritual guidance, they were the defenders of ordinary people against any access or abusive demands placed on them through forced labor by the colonial government and later against human rights abuses by the Indonesian occupiers. The church’s strong voice about the plight of the East Timorese people also kept the independence issue in the international arena alive; and Bishop Belo was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. During Portuguese times the Church was also the main educator of the East Timorese—first by the Dominicans and then by the Jesuits. As pointed out in the history section above, many of the current political elite were educated by Jesuit priests. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 ,]

East Timor declared three days of national mourning upon the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. In June 2006 Catholic Relief Services received aid from the United States to help victims of months of unrest in the country. The number of churches has grown from 100 in 1974 to over 800 in 1994.

Catholicism and Politics in East Timor

Andrea K. Molnar of Northern Illinois University wrote: “The Catholic Church, however, also had a strong political interest and role. The historical foundation of the Church’s political involvement go back at least to the early 20th century when members of the Church hierarch were formally included in legislative councils under the Salazar government. During the UN transitional administration (UNTAET and ETTA), prominent priests were also included in the government. Indeed the Catholic Church organized its own civic education programs prior to the Constituent Assembly elections in August 2001. In 2004, while deciding against it, the former bishop, Ximenes Belo, was considering entering politics and running in the next presidential elections. [Source: Andrea K. Molnar, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 , ]

“Given the prominent influence of the Catholic Church on the lives of the East Timorese people, with Catholicism being a major identity marker, the Church has great power in influencing politics. Their influence does not only extend to just through lobbying the governmental powers; but also to organize the masses and influence public opinion. Thus, the Church could easily affect how people might vote or what candidates they might support, as long as they phrase these in terms of following ‘Catholic principles’. While the constitution of East Timor separates Church and State and prescribes tolerance and respect for all religions, in the preparatory pre-constitutional phase, the Catholic Church was very heavily lobbying to make Roman Catholicism the official state religion in the constitution.

“The prominent political involvement of the Catholic Church is also illustrated by recent events in East Timor. The leaders of the Church, such as Father Domingos Soares, have organized a series of demonstrations and rallies starting on 18 March 2005 that went on for over four weeks. Thousands turned out daily, and it has been reported that the East Timorese police also descended in full force with drawn weapons. The demonstrations were in protest of a February government proposal to abolish mandatory religious education from state schools and make it voluntary. However, the issues of justice and democracy were also a prominent part of the demonstrations, as the Church wished to express its outrage over the not pursuing trials of Indonesian militia and military personnel who committed atrocities in 1999. The government accused the Church of creating a volatile situation. The church accused the government of being “extremist” and a “dictatorship”. The Church also claimed that the people do not trust the government and the demonstrators demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Alkatiri.

It should be pointed out, however, that the Catholic Church representatives were not only pushing for the inclusion of mandatory Catholic religious education in state school curriculum. They also suggested that tenets of other minority religions be also included (such as Islam, Protestantism, and so on). On the other hand, most East Timorese interpreted the Church’s outrage on the governmental proposal of excluding religious education as an outrage against not having mandatory Catholic religious education for all Timorese children. It is also interesting to note that some Catholic news sources in their reports on the situation made certain to point out that East Timor’s Prime Minister was Muslim; referring to him as the “Muslim Prime Minister Mari Bin Amude Alkatiri”.

“By May 2005 the Church and the government reached an agreement with the Prime Minister and bishops of Dili and Baucau, D. Alberto Ricardo da Silva and D. Basilio do Nacimento, signing a joint declaration. In spite of a series of preambles referring to parts of the Constitution, the seven point declaration suggests a political victory for the Church in terms of mandatory religious education. It also mandates the establishment of a Permanent Working Group, a month for the signing of the declaration, which will consists of representatives of the Catholic Church and other religious denomination and also government officials to formalize the program of mandatory religious education. The declaration if indeed applied will garner another colossal victory for the Church. Point 6 (ibid) demands that, The Draft Penal Code should address the abortion issue in all its dimensions; abortion must be defined as a crime, except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to avoid the mother’s death. The law must equally define the practice of prostitution as a crime, but should protect victims forced into prostitution. It would appear that the Catholic Church’s activism for legalizing at least some aspects of ‘Catholic doctrine and principles’ may achieve what they could not prior to the writing of the Constitution — a Constitutional inclusion of Catholicism as state religion. Should the Church continue with their agenda and succeed, Catholicism might as well have been declared a state religion. It will be interesting to observe the Church’s political activities and advances in the next national elections of East Timor.

Pope Paul II Visits East Timor in 1989

Worldwide attention was focused on East Timor in 1989 when Pope John Paul II visited it and called for an end to human rights abuses, an act that triggered anti-government demonstration. Officially neutral, the Vatican wished to retain good relations with the Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation. Upon his arrival in East Timor, the Pope symbolically kissed a cross then pressed it to the ground, alluding to his usual practice of kissing the ground on arrival in a nation, and yet avoiding overtly suggesting East Timor was a sovereign country. He spoke fervently against abuses in his sermon, whilst avoiding naming the Indonesian authorities as responsible. The Pope spoke out against violence in East Timor, and called for both sides to show restraint, imploring the East Timorese to "love and pray for their enemies." [Source: Wikipedia +]

Clyde Haberman wrote in the New York Times, “Praying on a barren plain said to have been a killing field for Government troops, Pope John Paul II admonished Indonesia today to respect human rights in the disputed province of East Timor, where he said ''many innocent people have died.'' The Pope became the first world leader to visit East Timor, which is largely Roman Catholic, since Indonesia invaded the territory and annexed it in 1976, and he used the occasion to recall past bloodshed and to appeal for reconciliation between Timorese and the Indonesian authorities. [Source: Clyde Haberman, New York Times, October 13, 1989 |::|]

“But as he finished celebrating an outdoor Mass, the passions that still smolder here burst into a chair-throwing melee directly in front of the altar between anti-Government demonstrators and police officers. The trouble began when about 20 youths emerged from the crowd of 100,000 worshipers and tried to force their way to the altar past security guards. As they unfurled a banner and shouted slogans calling for East Timor's independence, they were set upon by plainclothes policemen, who hit them with riot sticks and pushed them back. Witnesses who stayed behind after the press corps traveling with the Pope had been taken to the Dili airport said that dozens of other youths joined the brawl, throwing chairs at the police until calm was restored 15 minutes later. Four women were said to have been trampled and taken to a hospital. No arrests were reported. One witness said the incident occurred as the Pope was walking to his car for a short ride to the airport. He paused to look at the disruption and then left. At no point was he in jeopardy, and the fact that the protesters also chanted ''Viva Il Papa!'' made it clear that he was not their target. Nevertheless, the episode underscored the ''hatred and struggle'' that John Paul had discussed minutes before. |::|

“Delivered in English and translated for the crowd into the local Tetum language, the Pope's homily was an unequivocal call for human-rights safeguards. ''Respect for the rights which render life more human must be firmly insured,'' he said. International rights groups say that perhaps as many as 200,000 East Timorese, out of a total population of 650,000, were killed by Indonesian troops. Carlos Filipe Belo, the Catholic Bishop of the province, said killings occurred on the very spot where the Pope prayed -a spit of land bordered by craggy hills and the Timor Sea and once used by soldiers as a place to interrogate prisoners. ''For many years now, you have experienced destruction and death as a result of conflict,'' John Paul told his listeners. ''You have known what it means to be victims of hatred and struggle. Many innocent people have died while others have been prey to retaliation and revenge.'' |::|

“Western diplomats say that wholesale killings have long stopped here, but they and other international monitors report continued abuses. The Pope said before coming that his visit was pastoral and had no political significance. He is, however, a master of multilayered symbolism. He did not kiss the ground on landing at the airport, thereby avoiding a gesture that he reserves for countries being visited for the first time. But as the Mass began, he knelt and kissed a crucifix that had been placed on a cushion laid upon the ground. It was, a Vatican spokesman insisted, a normal custom that emphasized ''the purely pastoral nature'' of the visit. Still, from where the worshipers and their Bishop stood, another signal was being sent. They saw a Pope who seemed very much to be kissing the ground, and when he got back on his feet, the crowd cheered. |::|

Bishop Belo

In October 1996, the acting Roman Catholic Bishop of Dili, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and resistance leader Jose Ramos-Horta were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee accused Indonesia of "systemically oppressing” the “small but oppressed people" of East Timor and called for "a diplomatic solution...based on the people’s right to self-determination...This was about to become a forgotten conflict." The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Ramos-Horta and Belo caused the Indonesian government great embarrassment and it was yet another way of increasing international pressure. Three days after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Suharto visited East Timor. His visit was recorded for television and depicted him as the "father of integration" in East Timor.

Bishop Belo worked in East Timor to relieve tensions between the East Timorese and the militias and solders and promote human rights. East Timorese political activist Constancio Pinto told AP, "Bishop Belo is one of the only people not afraid of the Indonesian military. He is a very simple man but very strong." His biographer Arnold Kohen told Newsweek, "Belo would go into streets full of tear gas with militants and troops confronting each other, and within 20 minutes, everyone would go home. No one else had this kind of authority."

Bishop Belo is known for his outspokenness. He received death threats and once escaped being poisoned when he fed some meat he was given to his dog. The dog died.

Colimau 2000

In the early 2000s a quasi-religious group called Colimau 2000 became established in border area of East and West Timor and stirred up trouble. It mixed Timorese animism and Roman Catholicism and is believed to be to have been infiltrated by militiamen.

Colimau 2000 is headed Cornelio Gama, a former guerilla leader with long unkept hair who is known by the nom de guerre as Commandante Marriage. a reference to a long deceased ancestor. Followers of Colimau 2000 believe he has magical powers.

Gama said that two of his sisters and three brothers were killed in the years of fighting, he lived in the forest and subsisted on leaves, berries and occasional meals smuggled to him by sympathetic villagers. he saw his wife only in arranged trysts in a cave. set up by go-betweens. He has tattoos all over his boy and a mutilated left hand . He claims to have killed many in battle.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated November 2019

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