From the Place of the Dead – Bishop Belo and the Struggle for East Timor

Arnold S Kohen, Lion Publishing, 1999, 398 pp   ISBN 0745950035. Price: £12 (UK)

Reviewed by Agnaldo Cuoco, Brazil


Words are simply too weak to describe the suffering of the people of East Timor and the incredible courage with which they have faced the horrors of the last 25 years, after the Indonesian invasion in 1975.  More than 200,000 people in a population of less than 700,000 died as a consequence of the regime imposed by the former President Suharto and it's incredibly cruel military forces.  Mass murders, displacements of entire communities and a large scale famine, due to bombing and the ethnical cleansing policy of the Indonesian authorities, contributed to one of the most abhorrent human tragedies of the post-war period.  But East Timor is also a place of crosses because its population is, by and large, constituted by Christians.  More than 85% of the East Timorese are active Roman Catholics, who had in religion a source both of relief and peaceful resistance against the foreign oppression.


It was in this strongly religious environment where Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, a key figure in the struggle of East Timor for peace and self-determination, was born.  The name and the central place Catholicism had in his upbringing are part of the marks left by the Portuguese colonisation of the country for nearly 500 years.  Belo comes from a family where both parents had important roles in the local Catholic community.  This created in him a strong desire to serve God from his early years.


By the age of 20, in 1968, Carlos Belo went to Portugal to study for the priesthood.  In 1981 he returned to East Timor as an ordained priest, having been abroad during the harsh initial period of Indonesian occupation.  In his absence, the Catholic Church had been transformed from one of the institutions of the Portuguese colonial power into the guardian of the people - the only sizeable, independent organisation in the country and the only refuge against the atrocities of the invader. 

It was in this period of turbulence that Belo was appointed as the head of the Catholic Church in the country only two years after his arrival.  Indonesian authorities were very dissatisfied with Belo’s predecessor, who had declared his support to the groups fighting against the occupation forces.  The choice of a younger man pleased the officials in Jakarta, who thought that an inexperienced priest would be much easier to tame.  They were wrong.  Taking an exclusively peaceful, humanitarian and pastoral stance (refraining from supporting violence from both the invader and Timorese guerrilla) Belo became even more of a threat to Suharto’s project in East Timor than his predecessor.


However, this non-violence position, allied with a firm call for respect for human rights and self-determination of the East Timorese, put Belo in the middle of a crossfire.  On the one hand, the youth he loved so much and the guerrillas saw him as too weak in his opposition to the occupation.  On the other hand, Indonesian authorities soon came to consider him to be dangerously outspoken.  As for Belo, he just wanted to be on the side of the poor and oppressed, as a follower of Jesus Christ.  He assumed the hard role of being the voice of the voiceless.  Yet the loneliness and misunderstanding endured by Belo in his case for non-violence would finally be rectified when, in 1996, he became the first Catholic bishop to win a Nobel Peace Prize that he shared with José Ramos-Horta, the chief spokesman of East Timor’s resistance movement.


After the awarding of the Nobel, Belo could speak even more strongly for peace and the right of East Timor’s people to decide their future.  The prize was crucial to open the eyes of the world for the calvary of the East Timorese.  The leading western governments had many economic and political interests in Indonesia, and had never pressed for it to withdraw its forces from East Timor (in spite of a United Nations resolution).  In fact, the Indonesian army continued to receive weapons and training from the USA, UK and other nations, and employed them in the massacres in Belo’s homeland. In the end, East Timor did finally get to vote for independence in September 1999, opening up a new horizon in its history.


Kohen’s book is a very readable, thrilling and moving work, despite being in some moments rather repetitive and too long.  The inclusion of additional resources such as maps, pictures and a names index is a helpful feature of the book.  The author skilfully combines his biographic and historical ingredients and draws attention to the central part Christian faith played in the recent history of that people.  Economically poor, the East Timorese exhibited an enormous spiritual wealth in a world so dominated by cold economic and political interests.  What we can learn from the case of East Timor and Bishop Belo’s role in it is that Christian faith, far from being apolitical, requires a firm position in favour of peace, justice and human rights.  As Christians our duty is to denounce situations that contradict the project of love, which Christ has made evident to humanity.  The book is a good example of this important dimension of Christianity and I do not hesitate to recommend it.



The Big Picture

Advent 2000 Vol2 Issue 3 page 25