Subject: WCC: East Timor: hope for new life

Title: WCC - East Timor: hope for new life

World Council of Churches Press Feature, Feat-02-06 For Immediate Use 13 June 2002

East Timor: hope for new life Bob Scott

"We've had a very long journey. We've sacrificed over 220,000 of our people, but we're happy that we've now obtained our independence," says Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos, moderator of the Protestant Church in East Timor, during a recent visit to the World Council of Churches (WCC). "We're a small church; we have no 'mother church', so now we turn to our ecumenical family."

During more than twenty years of struggle, this small Protestant church faced a dilemma. The congregations were half Indonesian and half Indigenous Timorese. They saw themselves as belonging to an ecumenical church and did not want the political conflict to break up the church as well. "It was important for us to stay together as a worshipping congregation. We did not want to be fighting each other," says Vasconcelos. That is partly why the international community rarely heard the public voice of the church during those years of struggle. Instead, explains Vasconcelos, they chose to work with the majority Catholic Church, with Bishop Belo as their leader.

Clearly, this was a stressful time for the small church community, but by 1994 they had made their decision to publicly support self-determination. That is what they told their ecumenical partners at a meeting in Hong Kong that same year. "We knew that many of our brothers and sisters around the world were concerned for us, and we're grateful that they supported us," says Vasconcelos.

Some of the pastors, Vasconcelos among them, made a personal decision to work with the underground movement for independence. Vasconcelos was reported killed in September 1999, apparently a victim of the militia groups which at that time were wreaking havoc throughout the territory. He had received a number of death threats. Then news was received that he had been killed along with some other church leaders as they were guiding people trying to escape from the marauding militia, leading them by road from the capital, Dili, to Baucau. In a WCC press release mourning his loss, Vasconcelos was hailed as a "courageous church leader who chose to stay with the members of his church".

A month later, he was reported alive, and working in parts of East Timor which "continue to remain tense with fear and apprehension of possible outbreaks of violence". At that point, only four of 27 pastors were still in East Timor: most had fled to West Timor.

Justice and reconciliation

What of the challenges facing the churches in East Timor today? The United Nations, though still needed for some for security in the border areas, has handed over to the new government. Now begins the task of rebuilding the governmental infrastructure that was almost totally destroyed in the violence of 1999. Education, health and economic services need to be restored, and international partners will be solicited for yet some time to come.

Independence has brought a new task for the churches - that of reconciliation. There are many villages, even families, which have been split. Some chose different sides of the struggle. Some who fled to West Timor managed to gather some resources for themselves. How do they return and face their brothers and sisters who opted to remain in East Timor, facing almost daily threats to life and property, suffering starvation and disease?

Already the new government has established a truth and reconciliation commission. "Does reconciliation become part of justice, or justice part of reconciliation?" asks Vasconcelos. "We have to move slowly. We have to talk about justice, but also about healing. We have to accept that reconciliation is a process." He refers to a "social justice process" whereby justice is served not only by law but within community relationships. The yearning for peace is obviously very strong. "We're tired of the killing. We had 24 years of conflict," says Vasconcelos. "Now we have to build."

His visit to the WCC was to invite the ecumenical family to support both the churches and people of East Timor. "We don't have direct relationships with any churches or agencies in Europe. In that sense we are independent. We don't need missionaries, because we understand our vocation as a church in East Timor. But we do need people to help us rebuild the capacity of the churches to serve the people," he says.

Vasconcelos has asked for exchange programmes for church leaders. He points out that, during the Portuguese colonial period, no one from the Protestant community was sent to theological seminary. This explains why most pastors in East Timor are comparatively young. He believes they now need to be exposed to the way other churches conduct their affairs; to experience the debates and concerns of their brothers and sisters overseas. In a first response, the WCC has begun working with churches in East Timor and Portugal on a proposal for exchanges between churches in the two countries.

A small group has begun to discuss the formation of a national council of churches. Members of the Pentecostal Church and the Assemblies of God are already participating in that dialogue, which is being facilitated by the WCC.

"As a church, we want to play a prophetic role within this newest nation of the new millennium," says Vasconcelos, "even though it will be very hard. There is no shortage of people coming forward with suggestions and proposals. But we have to have a strong government and a strong civil society, and the church must be part of that." _______________

Bob Scott from Aotearoa-New Zealand is a communication officer in the WCC Public Information Team. He interviewed Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos during the latter's visit to the WCC in May 2002.

Photos to accompany the Feature are to be found on the WCC web site:

For further information, please contact Media Relations Office, tel: (+41.22) 791.61.53

The World Council of Churches (WCC) is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.

World Council of Churches Media Relations Office Tel: (41 22) 791 6153 / 791 6421 Fax: (41 22) 798 1346 E-mail: Web:

PO Box 2100 1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland

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