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OCTOBER 25, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 16

Pastor of the Revolution
A biography of Bishop Belo depicts a reluctant East Timorese hero

For the past 15 years, Bishop Carlos Belo has been speaking out bravely against the persecution of the East Timorese. His efforts to end the suffering of his people at the hands of East Timor's Indonesian occupiers brought him the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize--and the wrath of Indonesia-backed militiamen, who earlier this year destroyed his office and residence and drove him into exile. He returned in triumph two weeks ago after United Nations peacekeepers restored order to the former Portuguese colony.

Books: Pastor of the Revolution
A biography of Bishop Belo depicts a reluctant East Timorese hero

Indonesia: Cloudy Forecast
A bout of hard-nosed politicking has thrown open the race for president to a wide spectrum of possibilities

Amien Rais analyzes the free-for-all

East Timor: A Shaky Start
International peacekeeping forces meet less resistance than had been feared, but continuing reports of violence make it clear that the militias won't just fade away (Oct. 4, 1999)

Pulling Out
On the road with Jakarta's military (Oct. 4, 1999)

Insecurity drives Indonesia's xenophobia (Oct. 4, 1999)

Marching into Trouble
The multinational peacekeeping force that lands this week is entering a minefield--just the first on what promises to be a long road to independence (Sept. 27, 1999)

In a terror-struck village outside Dili, the Indonesian army makes a show of taking food aid to hungry refugees (Sept. 27, 1999)

Descent Into Chaos
The brutal rampage that has paralyzed the half-island has also severely damaged Indonesia's reputation in the world (Sept. 20, 1999)

Breaking news from Southeast Asia

Interactive map: The fragile archipelago

Keeping the Peace
A measure of calm returns to East Timor with the arrival of international troops. But the real challenge is not bringing peace but keeping it

Indonesia and East Timor

So you might easily think of Belo as leader of the fight for freedom and independence in East Timor. But as American journalist Arnold Kohen recounts in a new biography of the bishop, From the Place of the Dead (St. Martin's Press; 332 pages), Belo's role has been far more complicated. Yes, he successfully used his religious connections--and later his fame as a Nobel laureate--to direct international attention to the plight of East Timorese. But he came to his role of spokesman for their cause only reluctantly. Belo definitely was not a strategist in the independence battle. Politics is not his game. He considers himself first and foremost a priest. His job, he says, is to be a mediator, a minister of peace who brings people together. This did not always make him popular. "Belo had few allies--almost no one, in fact--who accepted his independence," writes Kohen. "Almost everyone wanted to enlist him for their cause and were deeply offended when he rejected their overtures."

Belo came naturally to his priestly role. His father, who died when Belo was three, was an itinerant teacher of catechism. His mother was a pious but impoverished woman who struggled to give her six children a Catholic education. Some members of earlier generations in Belo's family were considerably less devout. His maternal grandfather, Félix da Costa, for example, was a fearsome warrior in the service of the Portuguese and adorned his house with heads taken in battle.

While Belo has flashes of a fiery temper, he is a gentler sort. When he decided to become a priest, he overcame the objections of his bishop and joined the Salesian order. Unlike the Jesuits, the Salesians are not crusader priests, but clerics who toil in pastoral work with youth. The order has marked Belo, just as the Catholic Church has marked East Timor (pop. 850,000), a tiny Christian speck in the overwhelmingly Muslim sea that is Indonesia. What charisma Belo displays is largely the product of his mild manner and soft speech, developed over years of interacting with children. He is an altogether unlikely international celebrity.

Belo was in Portugal studying for the priesthood when East Timor was essentially abandoned by its colonial masters--and annexed by Indonesia in 1975. Kohen skillfully traces the background and history of this turbulent period, even if the point of view is largely that of Belo and those who were on the receiving end of Indonesian brutality. The ferocious Indonesian response to the recent independence referendum shocked many, though it shouldn't have. As Kohen documents, it has all happened before, though at the time few were watching and even fewer really cared.

In 1983 Belo was, to his great surprise, appointed East Timor's apostolic administrator, effectively the Pope's representative. Young and inexperienced, Belo was replacing a venerable priest who had lost the job because he was too outspoken. Activists were concerned that Belo would be the stooge of those in the Vatican who wanted to placate Jakarta and tone down the Church's involvement in human-rights matters.

Those fears were unfounded. Belo was no loose cannon, but soon he was speaking out against atrocities committed by the Indonesian authorities. He also railed at students. "To him," writes Kohen, "confrontations [by students] with the military were dangerously self-destructive. In Belo's eyes: what would become of the people of East Timor if its beloved youth continued to perish?"

He tried to bring the government and the protesters together for a dialogue but was frustrated at the results. The authorities, he said, "only want monologue." And yet, ever the priest, he did not give up trying to be an intermediary. Belo also played the contrarian: when voices were shrill and tensions high, he would talk softly or not at all. But when no one was speaking out, he stepped up to the microphone.

In 1989, Belo wrote privately to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar asking the body to sponsor a referendum on East Timor's political status. The letter was ignored. Ten years later, after the fall of Suharto, Indonesia's longtime dictator, his hapless successor B.J. Habibie unexpectedly agreed to Belo's suggestion. When the East Timorese voted for independence, pro-Jakarta militias went on a rampage and Belo took refuge abroad.

Now he has returned home, and in his mild way he has once again called for reconciliation. And--who knows?--if his voice is heard, Belo might ultimately find himself back in his favorite occupation: ministering to young people like a good Salesian.

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