Subject: ABC: Radio program on Bishop Belo and Lusa

Radio Program - The Religion Report with Stephen Crittenden, 
Wednesday 19th June

The nation of East Timor is barely a month old, yet already the issue of separation of church and state has reared its ugly head - in the person of Bishop Carlos Belo. East Timorese spiritual leader and joint winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, Bishop Belo, was in a belligerent mood recently after he read an article that criticised him and the Catholic Church. The Bishop has caused a furore by calling for the expulsion of the Portuguese journalist from the country.

Transcript: Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program. The independent nation of East Timor is only one month old, but already itís become embroiled in a controversy thatís much, much older: the separation of church and state. East Timorís spiritual leader (and 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner) Bishop Carlos Belo, recently went on the attack after a Dili-based newsagency published an article that criticised him and the Catholic Church.

The Bishop responded to the article by calling upon the clergy and the faithful of Dili to run the offending journalist out of the country. Fernando de Freitas has the story.

( sounds of BISHOP BELO AT MASS )

Fernando de Freitas: Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, conducing a regular early Sunday morning mass at his headquarters in central Dili. As always, hundreds of faithful turn out in their very best attire to be blessed by the man that ís become an institution in his home country.

The Catholic Church that he presides over played a prominent role in East Timorís 24-year struggle for independence. It was one of the very few sanctuaries for a battered people, becoming the unifying force under this most charismatic of leaders.

But the Bishopís usual calm and measured manner was absent when reacting to a recent article Dili-based journalist, Antonio Sampaio, wrote for the Portuguese newsagency Lusa that the Church is still the most powerful institution in East Timor, and that Bishop Belo is even more powerful than President Xanana Gusmao. What followed caught most by surprise. In a scathing letter published in one of East Timorís daily newspapers, the Bishop demanded that the journalist be kicked out of the country.

Antonio Sampaio: I was quite taken back by the reaction, because the article is not insulting, as Bishop Belo argues in his letter. I did not set out to do that. What I tried to do was try to explain, at an important junction point in the history of East Timor, the role of one of its most important institutions. And so a letter of that nature, asking for a journalist to be kicked out of the country, for an article that I still consider was a fair article, and that I stand by, and Lusa stands by ≠ I honestly did not believe that such a response was warranted.

Fernando de Freitas: Portuguese journalist Antonio Sampaio.

What Bishop Belo objected to most was the description of him as more conservative than his fellow bishop in the nearby province of Baucau, especially in his attitude towards animism, the tradition belief system of the Timorese.

The article points out that prior to Indonesiaís occupation, there were only about 25% Catholics in East Timor, compared to over 90% today. The Lusa article also questions the manner in which Bishop Belo was appointed in the first place. It was done directly from Rome, unlike previously when the Bishop was always appointed by his peers.

Antonio Sampaio: His right to disagree with the contents of the article is one thing, but to demand the expulsion of a journalist, particularly in the tone he demands that expulsion ≠ and this is a rough translation into English, he demands that the journalist should be ďrun out of TimorĒ, and he addresses the letter to the faithful and the clergy of Dili. That tone is very negative, and obviously doesnít augur well for the prospects of freedom of the press and the way the church (in this case, in East Timor) views the freedom of the press and the role of the press in a country that has just become independent.

Fernando de Freitas: The Bishopís reaction to Antonio Sampaioís article led to a storm of protest, especially as it came in the very first week of the birth of the new nation. Gil Da Silva Guterres is President of the East Timorese Journalistsí Association.

Gil Da Silva Guterres: Certainly, as a journalist, I think itís over-reaction, because I think if Bishop Belo has something bad with the news, he has the right to reply, to explain that that is wrong, not to come out to kick out someone, the journalist, out of the country. Thatís not ≠ I can say itís not the reaction of people that aim of dream for democracy. Thatís my comment.

Fernando de Freitas: The Portuguese fraternity, which is very prominent in the new East Timor, was up in arms with demands for a retraction and reassurances of freedom of the press. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and Foreign Affairs Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, both immediately came out to give this reassurance, saying that no journalist will be kicked out of the country. But although most observers disapproved of the manner of the Bishop ís reaction, at least one thought the article exalted the Bishopís real power. Valentim Ximenes is Head of Social and Political Studies at East Timorís National University.

Valentim Ximenes: What strikes me, I suppose, is that journalists like Mr Antonio Sampaio should be a little bit more deep in his analysis, to see that the role of the Catholic Church is not being laid by Bishop Belo himself. But I just remind you that Bishop Belo, as the head of the Catholic Church, what he has done was that he carried out the mission of the Catholic Church as a whole in this territory: to get people out of oppression during the occupation, and thatís what I know are the Timorese.

Fernando de Freitas: So youíre saying that the Catholic Church in Timor is a lot more than Bishop Belo?

Valentim Ximenes: Yes, of course. Itís not a matter of Bishop Belo. He carried out a mission of the Catholic Church as a whole.


Fernando de Freitas: The Bishop has stayed very quiet since the controversy, but in his Dili headquarters itís business as usual, with no sign that the devoted will turn away from their beloved church and its leader.

But the incident highlights an issue that will no doubt be a re-occurring theme in the building of the new nation. Valentim Ximenes.

Valentim Ximenes: It is a beginning of how to separate the church from the politics within the framework of the new nation. One thing that we can learn from it is that in the past, during the war, the Catholic Church has been seen as a safe haven for all rival groups, a safe haven for guerrilla leaders among others. And now, even today, in the time of peace, the role of the Catholic Church and its leadership remains to be recognised as peacemaker and reconciliator.

Fernando de Freitas: Thereís little doubt the Catholic Church will continue to play a very important role in East Timor. Its new challenge: how to separate itself from the central position its grown so accustomed to. Gil Da Silva Guterres.

Gil Da Silva Guterres: Well the East Timorese I know, the influence of Catholic Church, Bishop Belo is powerful, he is more powerful than Xanana. But we must divide thanks. I donít want to use negative emotions to justify political actions, political attitudes.

Fernando de Freitas: Gil, do you think itís going to be difficult for Bishop Belo to step back and separate himself and the church from politics, given the very important role that heís played in East Timor up to this point?

Gil Da Silva Guterres: It will be very difficult now I think. This kind of debate, this kind of polemic, will continue at least for the next five years, in the first constitutional review, it will be one of the most important debates in that.

Stephen Crittenden: Gil Da Silva Guterres, with Fernando de Freitas, who produced that story.

Guests on this program: Antonio Sampaio Dili-based journalist

Gil Da Silva Guterres President, East Timorese Journalists' Association

Valentim Ximenes Dean of Social and Political Sciences, National University of East Timor

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