Policy Brief 2: Religious Identity And Conflict In Timor-Leste

October 5, 2009


Executive Summary

Timorese history makes plain that this is not the first time externally practiced religions have been introduced into the country. Early records suggest that the Catholic missionaries who first traveled to the series of kingdoms of chieftaincies that would later become the modern state of Timor-Leste met considerable resistance to their imported theology. Following a pattern well tested in other parts of the world, the church conducted a process of social integration and selective conversion that bears similarities to the methods employed today by other denominations.

In recent experience, social upheaval following occupation galvanized Timorese support for the relatively stable influence of long-established, Catholic religious institutions. The Catholic Church, in part through its role in providing safe haven for the resistance movement, and also due to its high-profile educational role, has become deeply woven into the social fabric of the nation, eliciting a privileged status at both community and nation levels.

With independence, though, has come exposure to other cultural norms and belief systems. Among the resultant challenges to the pre-existing social order there have recently been new religious groups who have, research shows, drawn followers away from the dominant Catholic Church. New religious groups are, to date, predominantly affiliated with Protestant evangelical movements of various international origins. As the process of post-conflict development and reconstruction in Timor-Leste continues, some East Timorese look to faith-based organizations for both spiritual and material support. Others are less trusting of new faith-based organizations and are angered by the perceived negative impact on existing social norms and hierarchies. As in the past, however, some perceive new faiths as a challenge to the predominant belief systems as practiced in the country.

Even aside from the actions of new religious groups, Timor-Leste contains an inherent religious tension as a result of indigenous belief structures. This older source of belief has merited some accommodations from Catholicism. The indigenous Timorese traditions of ai???lisanai??i?? (or ai???adatai??i??) have never been fully overtaken by the Church and continue to play an important role in the social order, especially of remote communities. Research demonstrates that whilst newer churches on the whole are less willing to engage and cooperate with the perceived competition, there exists an instructive dAi??tente between the Catholic Church (and, to a lesser extent, the Moslem community) and lisan practitioners that has grown from long coexistence.

There are positive signs of cooperation between religious groups in Timor-Leste, and this owes much to credible leadership at the local level. In a country where access to state support is limited, church and Islamic officials may often hold considerable influence over dispute resolution and community decision- making generally. Though religious identity can sometimes inflame tensions, religious leaders, nonetheless remain valued interlocutors across generational divides in many communities and are often cited as being best placed to contribute to stability and consensus building.

This willingness to cooperate, however, appears to break down somewhat over the issue of conversion, an issue compounded by widespread rejection of Constitutional freedom of religion guarantees. Allegations of economic inducement are common, though unsubstantiated. In fact, the resources of many new churches are modest, and recent converts typically indicate more personal motivations.

Outright violent conflict between and within religious groups is still rare, but tensions do exist that threaten community stability and security, both between the Catholic Church and newer Protestant churches and among new church outposts. There are further rifts reported within even the most well- attended and well-entrenched Protestant churches. Calls for reform from within religious groups suggest most conflicts concern resource scarcity or social jealousy rather than points of theology. This makes it all the more important to promote interfaith dialogue, and to emphasize collaborative social programming.