From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Interview with East Timor Church Leader

Date 19 Sep 1997 10:50:18

Interview with East Timorese Church Leader
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the 
Internet: c/o

Contact: Wendy S. McDowell, NCC, 212-870-2227



 NEW YORK, Sept. 19 ---- The Rev. Arlindo 
Marcal, Moderator of the Christian Church of East 
Timor, shared personal struggles that reflect the 
tensions in his country during a recent visit with 
leaders from the National Council of Churches (NCC).

Among the most important issues he faces, he 
said, are how "to keep the Protestant churches 
united" in East Timor while maintaining "a prophetic 
voice concerned with human rights and justice."  
Given the difficult political context, these are 
seemingly impossible tasks, yet impossible tasks are 
not new to Rev. Marcal.

Arlindo Marcal was born and raised in East 
Timor.  Like many other East Timorese, he spent 
years hiding in the mountains after the Indonesian 
invasion of his country in 1975.  He was arrested 
and threatened with imminent execution, but after 
months in detention, he was finally released.

 Upon his release, he studied for four years at 
the Theological Faculty in Kupang, West Timor then 
transferred to Duta Wacana Christian University in 
Jogyakarta where he became the first East Timorese 
to graduate from an Indonesian Protestant seminary.

 "I had not had a formal education in 
Indonesian, so the language was extremely difficult 
for me," he said.  "I had to study very hard."  He 
eventually became so immersed in his studies and so 
used to speaking Indonesian, that when he returned 
to East Timor years later, he found it difficult to 
use his own native tongue.  "I had to learn again to 
speak my local language," he said.

 Rev. Marcal did learn to communicate again to 
the local people and became the Moderator of the 
Christian Church in East Timor when still in his 
early 30's.  In 1996 he was reelected to another 
term of office.

 His difficulties and identity struggles make 
Rev. Marcal especially suited to head up the 
Protestant churches in East Timor, to which both 
East Timorese and Indonesian people belong.  In many 
ways, this one man and the organization he leads 
embody the tensions of the country as a whole.

"For years, the Protestant church has been 
viewed as the church of the colonialists," explained 
the Rev. Larry Tankersley, Director of the NCC's 
Southern Asia Office.  "Currently, members of the 
Indonesian government and military are members of 
Protestant churches as well as native East Timorese.  
In a country with political oppression of one group 
by the other, that makes for a difficult identity 

The image of the Protestant church in East 
Timor as an outsider church was exacerbated by the 
fact that for years, the Communion of Churches in 
Indonesia (PGI) spoke on its behalf.  However, Rev. 
Marcal changed that when he spoke out publicly at 
the December 1995 Consultation on East Timor, a 
joint meeting of the World Council of Churches and 
Christian Conference of Asia, held in Hong Kong..  
At that meeting, Rev. Marcal formally requested an 
East Timor independent voice.  The Christian Church 
of East Timor became a member of the World Council 
of Churches and has recently received a WCC 
delegation to formalize their membership status.

Rev. Marcal noted that although Protestants are 
only a small minority in the predominantly Roman 
Catholic country, numbering 35,000, "there has been 
a Protestant church presence in East Timor since 
1953."  His own church, in the Reform tradition, was 
not formed through mission activity but entered via 
a charismatic East Timorese man who had been 
baptized by an English missionary.  Because of these 
realities, Rev. Marcal has been trying hard to get 
people to recognize the Protestant church as East 

Yet it is a difficult balance, because if Rev. 
Marcal emphasizes the Protestant church as a native 
East Timorese church, Indonesian members threaten to 
split off.  Rev. Marcal does not want that to 
happen, saying, "I would be very unhappy if the 
church split while I am moderator."

"At the same time, if we do not expose the 
identity of the Protestant church as East Timorese, 
we lose the support of the local people," he said.  
"So it is a dilemma - how to witness in our local 
context - how to live, understand and behave as East 
Timorese - while keeping the church united."

This question is complicated by a political 
situation in which native East Timorese are denied 
their human rights.  "I try to make people in my 
congregations understand that justice is an integral 
part of the mission of the church," he said.  "The 
church will be irrelevant if it only preaches about 
heaven.  It also has to address the concrete 
problems of peoples' lives."

Rev. Marcal said he has found a way to live 
with these tensions and to answer the question "What 
is the identity of the Christian Church of East 
Timor?"  He now responds, "The identity of the 
Christian Church of East Timor is an ecumenical 
church.  As such, the identity is not yet found but 
is still in the process of becoming."

Rev. Marcal's faith allows him to answer this, 
because "faith is not simply about the political or 
the cultural.  Jesus calls us to be united," he 
explained, "and in order to do that, sometimes we 
have to lose our identity."

He said that the support from churches and 
ecumenical organizations outside of East Timor and 
Indonesia are very important, including a recent 
visit from an NCC delegation.  "These visits 
strengthen us and empower us," he said.  "U.S. 
ecumenical teams are especially helpful because they 
model how people from different denominational and 
cultural groups can work together."

The NCC initiated relief and rehabilitation 
programs in East Timor starting in 1975, when 
Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor 
caused the deaths of about 200,000 people, fully a 
third of the population.  Since 1991, the NCC has 
advocated for the full participation of the East 
Timorese people in the political resolution of the 
East Timor issue.

Rev. Marcal's visit with the NCC is part of a 
several week journey in which he has been paying 
visits to church leaders in Europe and the United 
States.  The discussions go far beyond material aid.  
"I am interested in a partnership, where we can sit 
and share together and learn from each other," he 

Rev. Marcal has made some interesting 
observations in his travels.  He said he has seen a 
tendency for European and North American people "to 
believe they can solve everything by knowledge, 
science and law."

Rev. Marcal said that in his experience of 
life, he has found there needs to be a balance in 
all things, including between the material and the 
spiritual.  Rev. Marcal said that he has only been 
able to face all the material problems that are 
bigger than himself because of the spiritual 
strength that comes from God.

"Sometimes I feel so alone.  I always ask God, 
`Why, God, have you allowed me to serve the church 
for a second term?  There are other people who might 
be better at it.'  But then I realize that God saves 
me and loves me not because of my goodness but 
because of God's mercy."


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