DAILY CATHOLIC    THURSDAY     August 26, 1999     vol. 10, no. 161

from a CATHOLIC perspective

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Bishop Belo Receives Personal Death Threats

          NEW YORK, AUG 24 (ZENIT).- In spite of personal death threats and increasing tension just days before the Aug. 30 vote to decide East Timor's independence, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo continues to plea for his people's right to self-determination in a moving Op-Ed article published in today's edition of the New York Times.

        "I pray that the United States and other nations will do whatever possible to persuade Indonesian forces to allow this choice to be made freely, and, if independence is the result, to accept it without retaliating with violence," the Bishop begins.

        As the article went to press, it was rumored that brochures are being distributed in East Timor with personal threats such as "Be careful, or your white robe will be stained with your blood," reminiscent of similar tactics prior to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador in 1980.

        The article is direct and objective in tone and clear in its finality. "It is no secret," Belo affirms, "that most East Timorese oppose continued Indonesian rule."

        The 51-year-old Apostolic Administrator of Dili recalls the long history of strife and violence since civil war broke out in 1975 just as Portugal was about to abandon what had been their colony for over 400 years. Unlike the rest of Indonesia, which was colonized by the Dutch and today is overwhelmingly Muslim, East Timor received from Portugal both its Catholic faith and Portuguese, which is still the official language of the Church.

        "By 1980," the article denounces, "200,000 or more of East Timor's population of less than 700,000 may have perished from massacres, disease and famine." That is a figure that supporters for independence are quick to point out is proportionately higher than the ethnic cleansing carried out both in Bosnia and Kosovo in an area roughly the size of Connecticut.

        "Over the past six months, hundreds of people have been killed, most of them young people whose only crime was their desire to be free from Indonesian rule," Belo continues.

        But the attacks continue. "Thousands of people displaced by such violence have taken refuge in churches throughout East Timor, but even here they are not safe. In April, scores of people were brutally killed by armed militias at a church in the town of Liquica. Sadly, this was only the beginning of a series of assaults. Only the other day, a food convoy organized by a Timorese nun to feed some of the many displaced people was destroyed. Houses of villagers were burned, young mothers were threatened, the hands of young people in one village slashed, all to intimidate people from voting. In other places, the military has distributed guns to allies to force people to vote the 'right' way."

        As if foretelling an uncertain future, Belo laments that perhaps "diplomatic intervention may be the only hope there is to avert a new blood bath in my native land."

        While speaking out with passion to defend his countrymen's rights, he is careful to distinguish his role as Bishop from political favoritism. "All along," he emphasizes, "I have made clear that the church is there for everyone and is not to be used by any political faction. Yet I have concluded that only international pressure on Indonesia's army can end the violence."

        This 1996 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the first Catholic Bishop ever to receive such a distinction, offers concrete proposals when he concludes: "Indonesia's generals, who have longstanding ties to Washington, should be made to understand that Indonesia will not receive any military assistance or the loans the country so badly needs unless the army ends its campaign of violence. And Indonesian authorities must permit the entry of international peacekeepers. After all the suffering they have endured, the people of East Timor deserve no less."

        Some, at least, seem to have heard his plea. In fact, a recent congressional delegation on visit to East Timor, consisting of senators Tom Harkin, Jack Reed and representative Jim McGovern, earnestly recommended the sending of armed U.N. troops to accompany the unarmed advisors and observers that the United Nations has already dispatched to supervise next Monday's vote.

        Nevertheless, according to today's Washington Times, "the State Department yesterday dismissed the prospect of sending armed U.N. peacekeepers to East Timor," because, in the words of spokesman James Foley, "As a practical matter . . . we don't believe that the dispatch of armed U.N. peacekeepers before Aug. 30 is possible at this point." ZE99082421

        Meanwhile CWN reports that, Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday general audience at the Vatican called for peace and reconciliation in East Timor and the Indonesian province of Ambon.

        The Holy Father said that as the people of East Timor prepare for a referendum on their future, he prayed they could achieve a future of peace. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, invaded mainly Catholic East Timor in 1975 and annexed it the following year in a move not recognized by the United Nations. In January, President B.J. Habibie proposed a referendum, to be held next week, to allow Timorese to choose either autonomy within Indonesia or full independence.

        On Wednesday, thousands of East Timorese rallied in Dili in the biggest pro-independence rally ever. Anti-independence militias, backed by the Indonesian military, have waged a violent campaign to intimidate voters, killing hundreds and displacing thousands from their homes.

        The Pontiff also appealed for peace on the island of Ambon, where more than 450 people have died this year in fighting between Muslim and Christian gangs. "Apart from a firm condemnation, I express a heartfelt appeal for an end to the violence that has caused so many victims and so much damage," the Pope said.

Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

August 26, 1999       volume 10, no. 161


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