Following an overwhelming vote August 30 in favor of independence, the Indonesian island territory of East Timor continues to be racked with violence. More than 200,000 people have fled the massacres by pro-Indonesia militia. Hundreds more have been killed, including Christians and clergy.
Francisco de Vasconcelos Ximenes, the acting head of the Protestant church in East Timor, was shot and killed after being forced out of a church in the capital city of Dili in September.
Leading up to the referendum, at least 25 people were killed in April when a militia attacked hundreds of people seeking refuge in a Catholic church in Liquicia, west of Dili.
"Since the Liquicia incident, the militias pay no attention to the fact that they are attacking a sacred place," says Catherine Scott, Asia policy officer for the London-based Catholic Institute for International Relations, in an interview with the news service Newsroom. "It is an indication of the seriousness of the situation." The Vatican has called it genocide.
The Catholic church has been a place of refuge and reform for those opposing the Indonesian government.
The island territory was for 400 years a colony of the mainly Catholic Portugal, but evangelistic efforts were slow, particularly in remote areas.
In 1975, the mostly Muslim Indonesia led a bloody invasion claiming the lives of 200,000 civilians, nearly one-third of East Timor's population. But the hostile takeover was a boon for the church. "People saw the church as the only place that wasn't colonized by Indonesia," says Scott.
And church growth appears to be stronger than ever, ac cording to Nus Reimas, secretary of the Indonesian Evangelical Alliance. Official statistics place the number of Christians at about 15 million of Indonesia's 200 million people, but many church leaders estimate that number could be 5 million more due to the fast addition of new churches. Reimas says the new Christians are bold in proclaiming their faith, despite the risks.
"Some church leaders [in East Timor] have prices on their heads and each day do not know if they will be returning home at night," says World Relief's Arne Bergstrom. "Yet they continue their ministry, keeping as apolitical as possible in an extremely volatile situation."
Carlos Belo, bishop of Dili and a corecipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, was forced to flee in early September after militias attacked his residence, where he was providing sanctuary for hundreds of Timorese.
Analysts say the most difficult days lie ahead for the newly independent nation. In addition to ethnic and religious tensions, East Timor has suffered from a severe drought and virtual collapse of its economy during the past year. Most relief agencies have been forced to evacuate the area, shifting aid efforts to the thousands of refugees in West Timor.
Both World Vision and World Relief are providing relief items such as tents, medicines, and food to refugee families.
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