Subject: PCUSANEWS: Church on the rocks

Note #8433 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

04320 July 16, 2004

Church on the rocks

Is Protestant church in East Timor down for the count?

by John Filiatreau

DILI, East Timor - Five years ago, this country reclaimed its independence from Indonesia, becoming the newest, and arguably poorest, nation in the world.

After the independence vote in August 1999, pro-Jakarta militias and Indonesian soldiers killed at least 1,000 East Timorese, forced nearly 300,000 of its 800,000 people to flee for their lives, and reduced much of the capital city to rubble and ashes.

By the time the Indonesians and their supporters left, only four of 40 Protestant ministers were still on the job in the largely Roman Catholic nation, and virtually all of the 60 buildings owned by Igreja Protestante iha Timor Lorosa'e (IPTL, Portuguese for the Protestant Church of East Timor) had been destroyed.

And just when it looked as if things couldn't get worse - they got worse.

The church, known before independence (in Indonesian) as Gereja Kristen Timor Timur (GKTT), is virtually bankrupt, wracked by dissension and by some accounts in danger of splitting. It has lost one-third of its pre-independence membership of about 25,000 and can afford to pay its pastors only a pittance.

A synod meeting last summer ended with one church leader jailed for assault and another nursing a black eye.

Meanwhile, late-arriving evangelicals - the Assemblies of God, the Bethel Community and Pentecostal communities - are now the fastest-growing Protestant churches in East Timor, with at least 10 new congregations in Dili alone.

The Protestant church's history in East Timor is a short one, dating only to the mid-1940s, when a few families in the Baucau district, east of Dili, met with some foreign visitors and were given copies of the Bible. Soon these families were meeting regularly for scripture study and prayer, and eventually others joined in.

The first GKTT moderator was the late Rev. Vincente de Vasconcelos Ximenes. It was his son, the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos Ximenes, a former general secretary, who was jailed after a knock-down-drag-out synod meeting last year.

Earlier this month, during the IPTL General Assembly, pastors and elders - sensing, perhaps, that they need a combative leader at the helm if the church is to survive - elected Ximenes moderator.

How did things go so wrong for the IPTL?

Before independence, many members were Indonesians working as government administrators, civil servants and soldiers. The church had belonged to the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) since 1988; most of its leaders were trained in Indonesian theological schools; and its system of polity was modeled on those of Indonesian Protestant churches. Because of its close association with Indonesians, the GKTT was perceived by many to be "pro-integration" and "anti-independence."

Most Protestant leaders, aware that half their flock was Indonesian, tried to steer clear of politics. They were often silent about Indonesia's human-rights abuses - although many were secretly involved in Fretelin, the clandestine pro-independence militia - while Catholic Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo became a leading public critic of Jakarta and was rewarded with the 1996 Nobel prize.

The perception that the GKTT was pro-Indonesian began to change in the early 1990s when the Rev. Arlindo Marcal became moderator. Under his leadership it began to go its own way, joining the World Council of Churches, the Asian Conference of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Marcal himself became a proponent of independence, traveling around the world seeking Christians' support. He was greeted warmly at two General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a staunch defender of the civil and religious rights of the East Timorese.

After independence became official, in June 2002, Marcal turned to politics, becoming general secretary of the Christian Democratic Party. He is now serving as East Timor's first ambassador to the Republic of Indonesia.

It was his first cousin, the Rev. Daniel Marcal, then a prominent GKTT leader, who was cold-cocked by Ximenes during the fateful synod meeting. (Marcal declined to press charges and in fact went to the jail to arrange for Ximenes's release.)

Before and after the 1999 U.N.-sponsored plebescite, most GKTT pastors fled to West Timor and other parts of Indonesia, and many churches were destroyed or damaged. Some pro-Jakarta members and even pastors reportedly burned and looted their own churches. Some took church-owned cars and other property with them when they left.

What's worse, the churches lost their Indonesian members - and with them, virtually all their prosperity.

"In the Indonesian time, everything was going well," Ximenes says. "In many congregations, more than half of the members were Indonesian, and most of them were public servants, living better than the East Timorese. When they left us, we were left with nothing."

At its peak, GKTT had more than 30,000 members, 44 ordained pastors and 52 trained evangelists. It now has about 17,000 members, 29 pastors and 57 evangelists. Full-time pastors are paid the equivalent of $120 per month, evangelists $75.

A tense synod meeting in June began with a reading from Philippians 2: "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose."

What came next was a protracted argument about who would keep the minutes of the meeting and whether it was a task for an ordained person or a lay "evangelist." After several minutes, it was finally decided that two people, one ordained and one not, would take notes on what was said and done.

The subsequent conversation involved about 25 participants and had two main themes: 1) It's time to forget what happened in the past and make a new start; 2) a church leader is not supposed to be a "big boss," but a servant; and 3) in church there is no place for politics - or fisticuffs.

The Rev. Jao da Silva, of Ainaro district, urged his comrades to turn to "our good doctor, Jesus Christ."

"All of us are sick now," he said. "We must ask Jesus Christ to cure us. Then all will be better, all our fears will be OK. When we are sick, we take medicine and get strong again. So I say, Let's go to the doctor. He has good medicine for us. For my part, I want to follow Jesus everywhere, forever."

All agreed that the July General Assembly would be a turning point in the church's history. Many echoed Marcal, who said at the time, "If we sit together, and talk together, the problem will be finished. ... There is optimism that the church will grow."

Dozens of people witnessed the incident in which Francisco Ximenes struck Daniel Marcal. By all accounts it was and is inexplicable. Nothing of note had happened immediately before the blow was struck; Marcal didn't see it coming; no one had time or reason to intervene; and Ximenes never offered an explanation.

No one was much interested in talking about it. Marcal, who later resigned as general secretary to become a program officer for Church World Service, says he's still perplexed but has put the incident behind him. Ximenes says he and Marcal have made peace, adding, "I don't need to talk to him to forgive him." The prevailing attitude in the church seems to be embarrassment. Everyone understands that Ximenes has been under a lot of pressure for a long time as the most prominent church leader. All are eager to move forward.

In June, however, Ximenes seemed to believe his days as leader of the IPTL were numbered. "If the churches will not use me, or don't need me anymore, I will find another way for my life," he said. "Whatever they decide, I can accept it. ...

"I was thinking that I need some time to go out from East Timor, take a break, study or something, refresh myself, decide how I will be working more for our people in the future."

His election as moderator may signal a determination to keep the church intact.

In June, Marcal said, "Many people have come to me, urging me to make a new church ... but I think the Lamb of God is not to be separated." Similarly, Ximenes said, "There is a very great potential for the church to split. ... If we are not (able to) fix this problem properly ... the church will break." He has urged his fellow leaders to put aside theological differences. "If we are too dogmatic on theological issues, it will be difficult for us to go forward together," he says.

Ximenes was the only church executive on the job at the time of the U.N.-sponsored referendum and through the period of mayhem that ensued. It was he who led the remnant of the Protestant church into the mountains, where the group of about 100 hid for three weeks with no food or water, watching the smoke rise over Dili.

"I was so sad when they started burning," he recalls. "I think, How long will it take to rebuild this country? How can we rebuild this country? The people are very, very poor. But even (though) they burned everything, they will not kill our spirit. We still resist, move forward, slowly by slowly. It is a very hard life, but our (children) will live better than us now."

He says he has a similar hope for the church. "We are strong in the spirit, but it's very hard, because we have no special relationship with the churches, most of the churches in Asia. We have no 'mother church' in the West. ... People came to our help when it was time to put Indonesia out of East Timor. We had our experience in the past, working for East Timor's freedom, now we come to a new era. ... Now again we are waiting for the support from our brothers and sisters around the world.

"I think our people still need the helping - not only funding, not only the money, but also resource persons, to train people, to organize people, to help with community development. We're not talking about 19th-century evangelization. ... Our next problem after independence is increasing the economy - how to help people become prosperous."

Prosperity is a long way off. According to the CIA World Factbook, per-capita income in East Timor was about $2,200 in 2003, and 40 percent of the people were living in poverty. Unemployment was steady at about 75 percent. Nearly one-third of the population was under 18 years old.

Since independence, Protestants and the country's few hundred Muslims and few thousand of ethnic Chinese occasionally have been victims of harassment and violence. In one 2000 incident, Catholic mobs burned three Protestant churches in Aileu. In 2002, Catholic student demonstrators in Dili attacked and damaged the city's only mosque. In both cases, Catholic authorities apologized and helped pay for reconstruction.

"Next: PC(USA) partners assist some of the thousands of Indonesians who have fled violence in their villages and become residents of crowded refugee camps and barracks far from home."

see also Uniting Church in Australia - Comment on 'Church on the rocks'

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