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Bishop Belo: Blessed are the peacemakers

Belo said he would like to think anything is possible for an independent East Timor
Belo said he would like to think anything is possible for an independent East Timor  

By Nick Easen
CNN Hong Kong

(CNN) -- When President elect Xanana Gusmao hears people call him "Timor's hero" he often deflects the praise to Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

The archbishop of Dili and Nobel laureate has been a passionate defender of the poor and disenfranchised from the very beginning of East Timor's struggle for independence.

Monsignor Belo is the newest nation's foremost spiritual leader and every Sunday can be found leading the Christian populace of 700,000 in Catholic mass below the eves of the capital's cathedral.

Some say he's soft spoken, others hot headed, but one thing is certain -- Belo has always spoken out in defense of the Timorese.

The violence the Roman Catholic church has been subject to in East Timor is something unheard of in the modern world.

Even the recent siege in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is hard to compare with the ravaging of religious buildings in Timor, which left 59 dead and a human rights tribunal on the ensuing atrocities.

East Timor: Birth of a Nation 

The violence waged against the Timorese church in the bloody years leading up to independence is testimony to its strength in this nascent nation.

Feared and hated by mainly Muslim pro-Jakarta militia, it has been a bastion of strength and comfort for the East Timorese throughout their struggle.

Over the years the church has been recognized for the courage of its Catholic priests, nuns and lay workers who continued their work in the face of murder, looting, violence, rape and militia hatred.

And throughout the carnage Bishop Belo vocalized the church's campaign for a peaceful end to Indonesian occupation in East Timor -- a crusade that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996.

His wish was to come true in 1999, but only after much bloodshed. Militia violence directed at the Roman Catholic church was the cause of scores of deaths-- at a massacre in Suai church, 27 dead; Liquisa church, 22 dead and at the burning of Belo's house, 10 dead.

Yet as pro-Jakarta militia leveled a good majority of the infrastructure, businesses, industries and private homes, the only institution to survive the onslaught has been the church.

Belo was thrown into the spotlight as secular leaders were imprisoned, fled to the mountains or were killed.

When Bishop Belo tells the people that the healing and reconciliation has begun, they listen.

Belo: Peaceful engagement

Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo was born in 1948 in the town of Baucau, yet his early years were spent living in Portugal and then in Rome.

Yet he returned to East Timor in 1981 and five years later became a bishop, although it was not until 1989 that he began to speak out and advocate peace in the face of heightened violence.

After becoming more prominent the Indonesian authorities worked to undermine the Bishop's credibility including a number of attempts on his life by police and intelligence forces.

At the risk of his own life, he continued to protect his people from infringements by Indonesia while trying to create a just settlement based on his people's right to self-determination.

It was also Monsignor Belo who went to Indonesian's President B.J. Habibie, shortly after he took office in 1998, to tell him that East Timor's people did not want merely autonomy, but a referendum on independence.

When Habibie agreed, Belo offered to arbitrate between pro-Indonesian militia and pro-independence groups to ensure a peaceful solution could be found.

Then came the death of 25 Timorese in the church of Liquica and the bishop's frustrated calls for a peaceful solution were left unheard.

Yet throughout the occupation he was a constant spokesman for non-violence and dialogue with the Indonesian authorities.

Since independence the bishop has accepted an invitation to contribute to the drawing up of Timor's constitution, as well as working together to rebuild East Timor.

In an interview with Reuters news agency Bishop Belo once said:

"During the Portuguese time the Church was there. During the Indonesian time the Church was the same and now the Church will be present and preach the same values of the gospel -- justice, peace and reconciliation -- and try to work together with the social organizations."




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