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A bishop who weeps, scolds and keeps faith

By Arnold S. Kohen
St. Martin’s Press, 270 pages, $27.95
To order: 1-800-221-7945


In From the Place of the Dead, Arnold Kohen presents a biography of Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo of East Timor that explores three levels: the man, the priest and the patriot. It shows the man’s life is as intricately woven as the tai (indigenous multi-colored textiles) that grace his liturgical vestments.

The patriot is Belo’s most public self. Though Belo insists that he is a bishop and not a politician in clerical garb, it was as a patriot and the independent spokesperson for his people that he received a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1996. Much of the book tells the story of East Timor’s struggle against Indonesian occupiers. It would have to. East Timor’s story is the story of Bishop Belo and vice versa.

Opposing foreign occupiers is also part of Belo’s family history. More than once during World War II, Japanese soldiers severely beat Belo’s father when he tried to stop them from raping East Timorese women. The author contends that such abuse contributed to his father’s death in 1951 at age 39. Carlos was 3 then, and his mother had six children to raise.

The book does a good job of telling the story of Belo the priest. His day-to-day job is running his diocese. Belo introduced Tetum, the local language, into the church’s liturgies. He celebrated Mass daily in his Dili cathedral and made extensive pastoral visits throughout the countryside.

The book treats with respect Belo’s spirituality and the East Timorese traditional spirituality that permeates it. (The book’s title comes from the name of Belo’s birthplace, Mount Matebian, which translates as “the place of the dead.” Timorese tradition holds that the souls gather after death on Mount Matebian. Shortly after his birth and before his Catholic baptism, Belo was washed in waters from the sacred mountain.)

Generally, the secular world too easily dismisses this aspect, but Kohen’s book shows how Belo’s priesthood is his underlying motivation for all his actions. It shows how prayer and meditation give Belo the foundation for his activism.

Belo is not just a priest; he is a Salesian, a member of a religious order founded by Italian St. John Bosco in the late 1800s to work among troubled and abandoned youth. The bishop has often said that all he ever wanted to do was work with young people. His 12 years of seminary training (six years in Portugal) prepared him for this.

His dedication to young people led him to make one of his most fateful decisions. On Feb. 6, 1989, his sixth year as head of the Dili diocese, a boy came to the bishop’s house in tears. He told the bishop that Indonesian teachers at his school had humiliated him and his friends because they were Timorese. In that boy, Belo saw an entire generation marginalized and an entire culture suppressed. That day, he wrote a letter to then-U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, asking the United Nations to conduct a referendum for the people of East Timor on the future of their land.

This simple letter, motivated by Belo’s religious calling to serve youth, was nearly Belo’s undoing. (Perez de Cuellar, by the way, never responded). The letter, Kohen writes, “brought on an unrelenting campaign of intimidation and death threats.” At this same time, Belo waged a clandestine battle with Vatican bureaucrats who, under siege by Indonesian power brokers, wanted Belo replaced.

According to Kohen, Belo had the ear and the sympathy of Pope John Paul II, but not the Vatican diplomatic bureaucracy. Kohen -- among others -- draws parallels between Belo and Archbishop Oscar Romero: Both were appointed with the expectation that they would maintain cozy relations with difficult governments, and neither met this expectation.

Following his ad limina visit in 1990, Belo was told to wait for a summons from the Vatican secretariat of state. He cooled his heels in the Vatican for two weeks before in exasperation he telephoned the secretariat. Finally the summons came, but after waiting more than two hours outside the office, he was told he would have to come back the next day. Kohen says Belo left in disgust and never went back.

“East Timor posed an extremely difficult position for Rome, one with considerations well beyond the issue at hand,” Kohen writes. “To some in the Vatican, on a religious level at least, Indonesia was as strategically significant as the military and economic importance of its sea-lanes and oil reserves.”

The strategic importance includes: Indonesia’s role in inter-religious dialogue (Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world), relative freedom for Catholic evangelism and generous assistance to Catholic schools and hospitals. Catholics also held prominent positions in Indonesia’s government, military and business sectors. In short, Kohen writes, “important voices in the Vatican wanted to downplay the issue of East Timor.”

The author, a former investigative reporter for NBC News, is president of The Humanitarian Project, which he says aims “to stimulate greater public awareness of human rights and humanitarian problems that face needy areas of the world, and to encourage aid to these areas.” The group has an East Timor project, and it was in this context that Kohen met Belo. The author’s preface notes that while he had extensive cooperation from Belo, this is not an “authorized” biography.

Kohen was with Belo when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Kohen has traveled with the bishop through Europe and the United States, and has had extended visits with the bishop in East Timor. Together they climbed Mount Ramelau, another sacred peak, during a pilgrimage that attracted thousands of Timorese.

Concise and readable, the book is a good introduction to East Timor. Best of all, the book presents Bishop Belo as a man: one who weeps and rages, scolds and consoles, a man peaceful in prayer, but worried about a middle-age paunch.

I found myself awed at Belo’s resilience. Though under constant surveillance and hounded by petitioners and the media, for much of his adult life Belo has been an isolated man. The Indonesians have always been leery and generally hostile to him. Though now he is popular with his people, the guerrilla movement never trusted him. In May 1983, the night before he was installed as apostolic administrator, the priests of the diocese rejected his appointment and announced they would boycott the installation.

But Belo endured. And he led. Whatever the results of the referendum held at the end of August, East Timor is acknowledged to be on the verge of statehood. Though it took a 25-year-long international campaign to secure the referendum, it is to a large extent Belo’s leadership that made the referendum possible.

East Timor owes its future to Bishop Belo.

Dennis Coday writes from Bangkok, Thailand. He reports on Asian issues for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999