Keeping East Timor's Catholics on Side

A few years ago, in an obscure East Timorese border town called Tunubibi, Domingos Pereira and his wife did something they later discovered was dangerous. They quit the Roman Catholic Church.

It started in 2004 when a handful of Jehovah’s Witness missionaries showed up in their tiny village. Every week the missionaries held services in their home and by 2006 they had converted five families, among them the Pereiras.

It was five families too many. The local Catholic Church, which claims near total support in this tiny country, lashed out. A couple of nuns drove to the Pereira home and accused the Pereira family of selling their faith for cash.

Domingos protested. He said he was never given money ‑ only a Bible, which he and his wife read. After they read the Bible, he says, he and his wife believed what the missionaries had to say.

Domingos said the local nuns were furious. “They told us, ‘You can’t study the Bible. If you read the Bible every day, you’ll go crazy,’” he said. “They said the Bible was for the catechist, the sisters, the priest and that’s it. They said it wasn’t for everyone.”

In August 2006, the catechist told the townspeople to throw the missionaries out and refuse to rent their homes to any more missionaries. The missionaries left Tunubibi and moved a dozen kilometers up the road to Maliana.

Five hours from the capital, Maliana is one of the most remote cities in Timor. Here the church, overseen by a local priest who refused to be interviewed, is the highest authority, superseding even the police.

The Pereiras say they have faced torment and abuse from their neighbors ever since – and their story is not unique. Other members of the evangelical religion reported similar things: Visits from nuns, death threats or occasional beatings. Meanwhile, the police did nothing.

After their 2006 roust, the Jehovah’s Witnesses lasted two years in Maliana. Last month, a group of about 20 people surrounded their home one Saturday morning and told the missionaries to get out. The group was led by Anise Barreto, a 54-year-old grandmother. Barreto lives across the street from the now-empty house where the Jehovah’s Witnesses used to proselytize.

“We’re Catholic,” she said. “We have been Catholic since birth and we don’t want any other religion here.”

Barreto said the priest told her that, as a Catholic community, they couldn’t accept any other religions in their neighborhood. Barreto and other Catholics who helped drive out the evangelists claim the Jehovah’s Witnesses were giving out money in exchange for conversions. Barreto said the Jehovah’s Witnesses would take photos of their converts and, for each photo, they’d hand over money. But Barreto couldn’t say how much money was given as no Catholic interviewed had attended a service.

“If we went in there all our neighbors would talk about us and later they’d come and attack us,” said one neighbor.

Domingos Pereira said rumors are rampant. “People believe the foreigners gave us money so we would join them,” he said. “Because we were no longer Catholic, people would ask why we’d left the Church. They couldn’t understand it. They assumed we were given money.”

Maliana was not always so intolerant. During the 24-year Indonesian occupation, the town boasted a Protestant church, a Buddhist temple, a Catholic church and a mosque. When the Indonesians left in 1999, they took with them the Buddhists, Protestants and most of the Muslims. Many Timorese say the Church helped them throughout the struggle against Indonesia, and, they say, without the Church Timor would not be independent. To some, questioning the Church is traitorous.

Still, Natalia Duarte left the Church last year to be a Seventh Day Adventist. She left in the most dramatic way possible.

“People hate me because I burned my statue of Mary in front of my house,” she said. “Lots of people didn’t like that because they said it went against the Church.”

One night, when she thought most of her neighbors were asleep, she grabbed her wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, the most sacred Catholic thing in a Timorese home, took it outside and set fire to it. Not everyone was asleep and someone saw her.

A few months ago the priest and some others came to her house to ask her why she’d changed religions. They asked about the statue.

“They said, ‘Give us back our statue.’ I said, ‘It’s my right to do what I want with it,’” she explained. “They knew what I did with it.”

The priest said she could never take communion again. Duarte is all alone because she’s the only Seventh Day Adventist in town. Her husband is a Catholic as are her two children. They go to church without her.

To some she is evil. Carlito Guterres, a middle-aged man and father of four, assaulted her on the town’s main street in broad daylight. He said he’d do it again, too. He said she was walking down the street and he called her over to talk religion.

“She took out her Bible and she started to quote from it. I slapped it out of her hands and then I slapped her in the face,” he said. “She ran away.”

He said she had no authority to talk about religion because she is not a priest.

The idea of a religious conversion scares most Timorese who see any religion besides Catholicism as heretical. Yet evangelical religions are spread through proselytizing ‑ looking for converts ‑ so clashes happen.

Pereira said he and his wife used to go door-to-door, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses taught him. He said he found people willing to listen, but everyone was scared. More than once he and his wife were chased away with sticks and swearing.

“Lots of people want to join, but they’re afraid,” said Duarte. “They’re afraid of their families, afraid of the priest, afraid of the sisters and afraid of the youth gangs.”

Forced evictions, assaults, threats and beatings are all illegal, but the police do nothing to help the victims. The district’s acting police commander said his officers don’t want to get involved with religious affairs, so they don’t step in. Even the United Nations police who are training the local police don’t investigate.

Klefer Belo is a Brazilian pastor with an international evangelical group called Sacred Vision. Belo and his wife moved to Maliana a year ago and they lasted two days before they were driven out by a Catholic mob. Belo and his wife moved and they say they’re not moving again.

Belo is about to build the first evangelical church in Maliana, and both he and his wife have gotten death threats and some youth have threatened to torch his church once he builds it. Belo says the police have not been helpful, but even still he will not give up.

“Sometimes we’re scared,” Belo said. “But we believe God is with us and he will never abandon us.”