15/09/08 COVALIMA, Timor Leste (UCAN) -- Catholics in Timor Leste have commemorated the ninth death anniversary of three priests whom anti-independence militias murdered along with people they were sheltering in a church.
Eyewitnesses said pro-Jakarta militiamen and Indonesian army personnel killed Fathers Tarcisius Dwanto, Hilario Madeira and Francisco Soares on Sept. 6, 1999, at Ave Maria Church in Covalima, 100 kilometers south of Dili. The priests were protecting hundreds of people sheltering there at the Suai parish church. Survivors said the militiamen and soldiers killed more than 100 people in the incident. The anniversary Mass took place on Sept. 9 at Father Soares' hometown in Catrai Kraik village, 60 kilometers west of Dili.
Father Lorenco de Jesus, the parish priest who celebrated Mass, called the slain priests martyrs for defending people against violence and intimidation by military and paramilitary groups. "They followed the path of Jesus by giving their lives to save other people," he said in his homily. Trouble began in the area on Sept. 4, 1999, the day the results of the Aug. 30 U.N.-sponsored independence referendum were announced. Almost 80 percent of East Timor (Timor Leste) voters chose independence from Indonesia.
The priest recounted how people had fled to Ave Maria and Nossa Senhora de Fatima Churches, both in Covalima, after Laksaur (eagle) pro-Jakarta militia members and Indonesian security forces killed a high school student that day, and burned homes and government buildings in Covalima the following evening. Militia members attacked Ave Maria Church the next day. Domingos Sousa, a parishioner, told UCA News he and others took refuge at the church because "we were scared of the militia."
He said he saw about 50 people murdered that day. "Father Hilario was shot in the chest, Father Francisco was stabbed and Father Tarcisius was hacked to death in the church." After the commemorative Mass, the congregation placed flowers on the graves of Fathers Madeira and Soares in the village. Father Dwanto was buried in Atambua in western Timor, Indonesia. The remains of the three priests were among the 26 bodies exhumed on Nov. 25, 1999, from three mass graves in Alas Selatan village, three kilometers from the border in western Timor.
The Indonesian government's Commission for the Investigation of Human Rights Abuse in East Timor exhumed the bodies and identified the three priests. "The rest could not be identified yet, but it is sure that some of the victims are women and children," it said in a statement at that time. Locally recruited militia groups linked to the Indonesian military were active in Timor Leste at the time of the 1999 referendum on whether the former Portuguese colony should remain part of Indonesia, which had taken control in 1975 and integrated East Timor as a province the following year.
The militias responded to the pro-independence vote by killing hundreds of people and destroying much of East Timor's infrastructure. Timor Leste, which became fully independent on May 20, 2002, after more than two years under a transitional U.N. administration, has a population of about 1 million, 95 percent of whom are Catholics. From Indian Catholic