Feature:
East Timor
   
EAST TIMOR VIOLENCE NOT RELIGIOUS CONFLICT
Church leaders in East Timor have been targeted because of the Church's leadership role in East Timor, not for religious reasons.
    The violence committed against the Church has including burning of church buildings, the gunning down of congregations, and the execution of priests and nuns.
    Catastrophe has East Timorese Catholics as they struggle to break free from Muslim-dominated Indonesia.
    The church says it has been deliberately targeted by rampaging pro-Indonesia militiamen backed by the Indonesian military. But others say the attacks go beyond sectarian differences.
    ``The violence and destruction have been terrible. But there is no grand design of religious cleansing,'' said Kusnanto Anggoro, a political analyst at Jakarta's Center of Strategic and International Studies. ``It's not just a case of Muslims vs. Catholics.''
    The Rev. Arlindo Marcal, the head of the Protestant Church in East Timor, agrees, saying the conflict in East Timor was always ``political, not religious, until now.''
    Marcal, speaking by telephone from Toronto, where he is on study leave, said Christians were not targeted for religious reasons, ``but because of the leadership role of the church in East Timor.''
    Church officials fear dozens of priests and nuns were killed in the wave of violence following the 4 September announcement that the East Timorese had overwhelmingly voted for independence in a UN-supervised ballot. Churches were burned down. Witnesses said priests were gunned down along with about 100 refugees who had sought refuge in a church in the southwestern town of Suai.
    Militiamen invaded and burned the seafront house of Bishop Carlos Belo, the territory's spiritual leader and co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. They killed dozens of refugees who had sought refuge in Belo's garden.
    ``Before ... Timorese were very religious people. They respected the bishop's house, the church. But now, this time, nothing,'' Belo said after being evacuated to Darwin.
    Pope John Paul II and other church leaders condemned the violence, which laid waste to much of the province and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
    However, religion itself may not have played a large role in the violence. Many Indonesian soldiers are Muslims, but most of the militiamen are Catholics organised into gangs by the army's secretive intelligence service.
    And Indonesia, which is almost 90 percent Muslim, has long had an official policy of religious tolerance.
    After invading East Timor in 1975, Indonesia allowed the church to forge itself into a strong, community-based institution among the territory's 850,000 people, who are overwhelmingly devoted to the Catholic faith introduced by Portuguese colonizers four centuries ago.
    Indonesia even built a huge statue of Jesus, on a cliff overlooking the seafront of the East Timor capital, Dili.
    But the army ruled with an often oppressive hand. Before long, the clergy began acting as protectors and champions of human rights. Some openly campaigned for independence, making themselves targets for the military, a stronghold of secularism throughout Indonesia's 50-year history.
    Kusnanto says the conflict in East Timor is a complex product of Indonesia's bumpy transition to democracy after 32 years of authoritarian rule under former President Suharto. Suharto, who was forced to step down last year, often used the military to crush dissent from both Muslim and Christian rebels throughout Indonesia.
    Since Suharto's ouster, some officers have wanted to reform the ranks. But others held tight to autocratic ways. The violence that followed East Timor's referendum has shown the hard-liners' strength.
    ``They have made a stand in East Timor,'' Kusnanto said. ``They regard themselves as nation builders, and the breaking away of any part of Indonesia is something they can't tolerate.''
    Marcal said the violence also was meant to frighten other separatists, particularly Muslim rebels in Aceh, on Sumatra island.
    ``The military leadership wants to demonstrate to other separatist regions, especially Aceh, that they will suffer the same consequences,'' he said.
    Before the August ballot, even Indonesia's Islamic leaders made conciliatory gestures toward the East Timorese.
    ``They should be allowed to decide their future,'' said Abdurrahman Wahid, the head of the largest Islamic organization.
   
    AP 11:44am 20/9/99
 
         
 
 
  
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