Subject: NCR: Nobel Prize-winning bishop will return to serve as priest

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005

World -- Q&A

Nobel Prize-winning bishop will return to serve as priest

East Timor's Belo says he will shun politics, write history


East Timor’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo belongs to the lucky few who were leaders in the East Timorese struggle for independence and survived the struggle. Belo, a man of peace and of the people, was made bishop of Dili in 1983. For a decade and a half, he lived in fear for his own life under Indonesian occupation.

In 2002 he chose to quit East Timor for health reasons. The stress of the past years, Belo told NCR, had become too much.

Belo, 57, has been working in Mozambique as an assistant parish priest, but he hopes to return to East Timor in June, he told NCR, not to take up the post of the bishop again, but to be a priest in the poor countryside.

Belo was born in 1948 in the then-Portuguese East Indies colony of East Timor. He left for Lisbon in 1973, continuing his education there and joining the Salesian order. Later he attended the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome. Ordained in 1980, he returned to East Timor, which by that time had been abandoned by Portugal and occupied by Indonesia, which annexed the territory in 1975. In 1983 he was appointed apostolic administrator of Dili diocese and he became the de facto head of the East Timorese Catholic church.

During the years of Indonesian occupation, when perhaps one-third of the population died of starvation, epidemics and armed repression, Belo was a strong and audible voice pleading for peace and freedom. Surviving several assassination attempts, he worked tirelessly to protect the East Timorese people from Indonesia’s reign of terror.

Belo shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Peace with José Ramos-Horta, then a leader in the opposition movement and now the fledging country’s foreign minister. Belo set aside his $270,000 share of the prize to fund scholarships in East Timor. In 1998 he joined fellow Peace laureates in petitioning the United Nations to declare the first 10 years of the 21st century as the Decade of Culture and Peace.

His quest for freedom through peaceful means was realized in May 2002 when East Timor became a full and independent nation.

Belo spoke with NCR Jan. 25 in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was the guest of the International Peace Foundation and took part in the event “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace.”

NCR: Bishop Belo, why did you resign as bishop of Dili and leave East Timor?

Bishop Belo: I was so tired on that occasion with stress and high blood pressure. I went to Rome in November 2002 and asked the pope for a rest. I asked to take up a task in Mozambique.

There weren’t any fundamental differences between you and the new leadership of East Timor?

No. And first of all: I am not a politician. They are chosen by the people, and they serve the people. But I think it is better for me to stay outside. I don’t like to influence. There is a new government, new ministers. My time of the long struggle belongs to the past.

You say the struggle of the East Timorese is over? Poverty is still rampant.

The active struggle is gone. The struggle of education remains. People are very, very poor. I don’t know the real situation right now, but when I left in 2002, people said there were no jobs. There are many, many difficulties in the villages with food, agriculture and medicine.

You have called the new, independent East Timor a success story, but you have also publicly disagreed with the new leadership, especially about the policy of reconciliation, which extends general amnesty to people who committed crimes during Indonesian occupation. East Timor President Xanana Gusmão said everybody is welcome to return, even militia members who committed crimes, and they won’t have to fear courtrooms.

The new leadership has political reasons for having a good relationship with neighbor Indonesia. They prefer reconciliation. But reconciliation and justice have to go together. I think furthermore that this happened later on in many places, where Timorese forgive, where refugees go back. But in some places there are still victims. They expect justice to be done.

For some, life may have been better under Indonesia?

There are always some voices against the [new] government, but I also realize that if we fought for independence we have to build it up ourselves. But it seems that people are not that willing to work themselves.

Does East Timor feel abandoned by the international community?

There is still some assistance. East Timor is not abandoned. From time to time there is a meeting of donors.

You don’t think people still need you in these continuing difficult times?

They cried when I left, but they have now leaders such as President Xanana Gusmão, Foreign Minister José Ramos-Horta, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. I am not the savior of the world.

Nonetheless you were of instrumental influence on East Timor’s path towards independence. I remember Sept. 6, 1999, the day the militias burned down your house in Dili and you had to flee. People urged you to leave East Timor as even your life was in danger. This was a turning point in your struggle, wasn’t it?

That day I fled to another house and then to Bacau. From Darwin [Australia] I went to Rome on Sept. 10. On Sept. 11 I was received by the pope. I think His Holiness talked to President Clinton and the United Nations. I think he did so.

Looking back, do you have any regrets?

(Laughs) No regrets. I want to add though that religion should do more in troubled times. Religious leaders have to do more to solve the problems, but it is also necessary to form good politicians. All depends on the leaders.

What was your position on the war in Iraq? As is generally known, Ramos-Horta, who received the Nobel Peace Prize together with you, supported the U.S. invasion.

I am against the war in Iraq. I am a man of peace. Before any military action we have to insist on diplomacy.

What is your work in Mozambique?

I work in a parish as an assistant parish priest. I am mainly helping children and young people. I chose that work because between the years of 1983-99 my work was so tough, I needed to change the kind of work I was doing. Now I am writing the history of the church in East Timor from the year 1556 until 2000. The problem is in Mozambique I have no documents.

So you cannot write this history.

I go back to East Timor.

You are going back to the land where life has been so difficult for you?

I go back to East Timor in June. I would like to go there as an assistant priest in the countryside.

You are a great leader of the Timorese. You honestly think you can quietly work in the countryside?

They have their new bishop, their clergy and a government. Since I stepped down, I am in no official mission.

Daniel Kestenholz is a freelance writer based in Bangkok. He reported from East Timor for NCR in 1999. Related Web site The International Peace Foundation

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