From the Worldwide Faith News archives

WCC - East Timor: hope for new life

From "Sheila Mesa" <>
Date Thu, 13 Jun 2002 10:56:20 +0200

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

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

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

PO Box 2100
1211 Geneva 2, Switzerland

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