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16 September 2008

Catholic Church guards its dominance in East Timor

Earth Times 15 Sep 2008 Maliana, East Timor - A few years ago Domingos Pereira and his wife did something dangerous. They quit the East Timorese Catholic Church. It started in 2004 when a handful of foreign Jehovah's Witness missionaries showed up in their tiny village near the Indonesian border. Every week the missionaries held services from their home and by 2006 they had converted five families, including the Pereiras.

The Catholic Church, which claims near total support in this tiny Asian country, lashed out. A couple of nuns drove to the Pereira home and accused the 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 said he and his wife believed what the missionaries had to say.

Domingos said the 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. So the missionaries moved a dozen kilometers up the road to Maliana.

Five hours from the capital, Maliana is one of the most remote large cities in East 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 Catholic Church torment as well as abuse from their neighbors. Their story is not unique. Other members of the evangelical religion reported visits from nuns, death threats or beatings. Meanwhile the police do nothing.

After their 2006 roust, the Jehovah's Witnesses lasted two years. Last month a group of about 20 people surrounded their home and told them to get out. The mob was led by Anise Barreto, a 54-year-old grandmother and a self-proclaimed disciple of the Catholic Church. Barreto lives across the street from where the missionaries used to teach.

"We are 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 the neighborhood. Barreto and other Catholics who helped drive them out 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.

Domingos Pereira said rumours 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 assumed we were given money."

Maliana was not always that 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 Catholic Church helped them throughout the bloody struggle against Indonesia, and, they say, without the church Timor would not be independent.

To some, questioning the Catholic Church is heretical and traitorous. But the church's authority is being questioned, and not just by the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Natalia Duarte left the Catholic Church last year to be a Seventh Day Adventist. She left in a dramatic way.

"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 object in a Timorese home, took it outside and set fire to it.

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."

To some she is evil. Carlito Guterres, a middle-aged man and father of four, assaulted her on the main street in town 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.

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