|U. S. Congregation Advocates for East Timor
By Rebecca C. Asedillo
General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church
A historic pact signed at the United Nations on May 5 will allow the people of East Timor to decide whether or not they wish to continue under the government of Indonesia or be independent.
One United Methodist congregation in San Francisco is looking forward to this event: "We pray for the people of East Timor and Indonesia every Sunday. We feel a particular responsibility to them because of our ministry," said the Rev. John Chamberlin, pastor of First St. John's United Methodist Church.
As the founding director of East Timor Religious Outreach (ETRO), a six-year-old ecumenical ministry based in his local church, the Rev. Chamberlin leads his congregation in a ministry of advocacy for the people of East Timor, without ignoring the plight of the Indonesian people.
But advocating for justice, peace, and self-determination for East Timor necessarily entails challenging the Indonesian government's illegal occupation and pushing the U.S. government to use its influence to bring about a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
East Timor had just embarked on a process of decolonization from Portugal when Indonesia invaded in 1975. According to Amnesty International, the brutality of the invasion and of Indonesia's subsequent occupation resulted in the death of approximately one-third of East Timor's population.
A year later, Indonesia annexed East Timor as its twenty-seventh province. This act was never recognized by the United Nations. Under UN sponsorship, Portugal and Indonesia have engaged in diplomatic talks about the political status of East Timor for many years, but with little progress.
In May 1998, amid the devastating economic crisis and the political unrest that swept across Indonesia, President Suharto, who had governed Indonesia for 32 years, was forced to step down. He was replaced by B. J. Habibie.
Last January, President Habibie announced to a surprised world community that if the East Timorese rejected the UN-brokered proposal of autonomy for East Timor under Indonesian sovereignty, Indonesia would allow East Timor to become independent. In April, Habibie announced that after its signing, the autonomy proposal would be put to a vote on August 8.
But while substantial progress has been made in international negotiations, the situation on the ground in East Timor continues to deteriorate rapidly. In April alone, pro-Jakarta civilian militias, armed by the Indonesian military, committed brutal massacres in the towns of Liquica, Dili, the capital of East Timor, Suai, and other rural areas. Cases of arbitrary detention, disappearances, and torture of suspected independence supporters continue to be reported. Churches and convents that house refugees, newspaper offices, and offices of non-governmental organizations have been attacked.
In a report published in the Sydney Morning Herald on May 1, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth said there was strong evidence that the Indonesian army was allowing pro-Jakarta paramilitary groups to conduct their killing sprees with complete impunity, putting the autonomy vote at peril.
Back in San Francisco, East Timor Religious Outreach has been active in the current international campaign seeking the disarming of paramilitary groups and pushing for a United Nations presence in East Timor, as well as the withdrawal of Indonesian troops from the territory.
In the past, through the efforts of ETRO, the California-Nevada Conference of The United Methodist Church passed resolutions on East Timor in 1993, 1994, and 1995, and was instrumental in pushing for the 1996 General Conference resolution on East Timor, working through the General Board of Global Ministries.
Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of the San Francisco area is fully supportive of this ministry, and is himself a key international religious leader supporting East Timor.
Every year on the anniversary of the Dili massacre, in which over 270 peaceful marchers were killed by Indonesian security forces, ETRO organizes public witnesses in front of the Indonesian consulate in San Francisco. Members of First St. John's help write the liturgy, create banners and signs, mobilize members of various faith communities, and sometimes engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. These demonstrations have been the largest in support of East Timor ever held in the United States.
"We're in this for the long haul," asserted the Rev. Chamberlin. "We don't want to be complicit in mass murder." According to East Timor activists, ninety per cent of the weapons used in the invasion of East Timor came from the U.S. Government.
"Beyond that," he added, "we understand ourselves to be part of Christ's worldwide body, the Church. The East Timorese are our sisters and brothers in Christ. We are inspired by their tremendous heroism and courage in resisting their oppressors. But we also realize that in order for the East Timorese to succeed, they're going to need the help of the international community."