Subject: Lusa: Catholic Church Still a Power to Be Reckoned With

17-05-2002 22:12:00 GMT Invalid Hora local. Notícia 3670241

East Timor: Catholic Church Still a Power to Be Reckoned With

Conservative and isolated for decades, East Timor`s Catholic Church is the most powerful institution in the soon-to-be nation, with many Timorese saying its charismatic leader, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, commands more respect than Xanana Gusamo.

The Catholic Church gained in stature during the resistance to Indonesian occupation, taking on the role as one of few refugees from persecution and intimidation.

After many years of isolation, Timor`s Catholic church is now potentially the country`s main moving force with its capacity to mobilize the masses and relay messages.

Timor`s patriarchal and paternalist traditions mean that the church ministers to a devout community that pays serious attention to the comments of religious leaders.

A Timorese leader told Lusa recently that the church`s beneficial role should not be underestimated.

"Timorese society is still very fragile, political institutions are practically non-existent and the only solid body that can guarantee stability is the church. It would be an error to write off the church too soon", said the leader.

The Timorese church`s power began to build up during the Portuguese dictatorship when it became apparent that religious power was equally as important as the secular and political.

Indonesian occupation was another catalyst as the occupying administration forced Timorese to profess a religious faith. As most Timorese are essentially animist, they embraced Catholicism.

Figures obtained by Lusa show that at the time of the Indonesian invasion in 1975, about 264,000 people had been baptized in Timor, compared to about 460,000 who considered themselves animists.

During Portuguese rule, Catholicism and animism co-existed in relative harmony, particularly as Catholicism still had less influence and was only practiced by a quarter of Timorese.

Some Timorese say the Catholic Church became more conservative with the appointment of Bishop Belo in 1983, who replaced the charismatic and admired Bishop Martinho da Costa Lopes.

Belo`s term of office started badly and he was not supported by most of the Timorese priesthood.

However, church resistance to the Indonesian occupation made it stronger and Belo`s stature and influence was enhanced.

"It was the fault of the war which brought much change. The people began to focus on the Catholic religion", explained a traditional leader.

Bishop Belo`s conservatism contrast with that of his fellow prelate, Basilio do Nascimento, in the second city of Bacau.

The Bishop of Bacau is more open to animism and traditional practices, although clearly has less clout than his colleague in Dili.

Some Timorese point to the different backgrounds of the two bishops. Do Nascimento spent more time in Europe and "understands more about reforms and church positions", said one Timorese observer of church matters.

CJB/ASP -Lusa-

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