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Bishop Belo Speaks

14 September, 1999


VATICAN CITY, SEP 14, 1999 (VIS) - Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, apostolic administrator "sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis," held a press briefing with accredited journalists this morning in the Holy See Press Office. He described the situation in East Timor, reviewed recent events there and answered journalists' questions in several languages.

The co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize began by describing his meeting yesterday in Castelgandolfo with Pope John Paul. He said they had a "prolonged" lunch together as the Holy Father was extremely interested in every aspect of what was happening in East Timor. The Pope, Bishop Belo stated, "was very moved about the situation and he asked about the priests, the nuns, the faithful and all of the people of East Timor, as well as about church buildings and institutions. He asked me: 'What can I do? What can the Holy See do?'

"I thanked him for all that he had already done, the many appeals he had made. I told him that his interventions had been very useful. I asked if he could contact (U.S.) President Clinton to see if he could take immediate action to make international peacekeeping forces arrive in East Timor.

More than anything we now need humanitarian aid - food, water, and so on."

He added that the Holy Father asked for an overview of the situation in Indonesia, and that they both also spoke of Portugal. East Timor was a Portuguese colony for almost 400 years. Indonesia invaded the eastern half of the island of Timor in 1975, annexing it the next year as a province.

In January of this year, Indonesia's President B.J. Habibie, reversing decades-old policy, offered the people of East Timor the possibility of self-determination. A U.N.-sponsored referendum was held on August 30, 1999, with nearly 80 percent of East Timorese voting for independence.

Bishop Belo said he told Pope John Paul that he would remain in Rome for several more days and would return when international forces are in place. He stated that he left East Timor specifically to meet with the Holy Father.

He explained that the "militias" referred to in the media are composed of both East and West Timorese, as well as members of the Indonesian military. They have conducted a "psychological war," he pointed out. He said that the militias campaigned for months to convince the East Timorese not to vote for independence, adding that they used every possible means of violence: burning homes, churches and other buildings, and killing people. This violence increased after the affirmative results of the August vote were made known.

After the referendum, said the bishop, "the militias provoked the mass exodus of people," adding that there are now 80,000 deportees. The August 31 and September 1, 2 and 3 attacks on Church people and property were especially violent.

"Why the attacks on the Church?" asked Bishop Belo. "The Church has been a voice for those Timorese who do not have a voice. The Church has always supported the people's freedom to choose, though it has never come out for a specific position. Indonesia never accepted this. In addition, when there were attacks, resistance leaders sought refuge in churches and ecclesial institutions.

The bishop then described in detail the burning of the curia offices - where he was present - and the killing of people in Dili on Sunday, September 5. He spoke of being questioned by the police, then escorted to the airport by a UN car and then his flight out of the country aboard an Australian military plane. "The head of the militia allowed me to leave when I told him I wanted to talk to the Holy Father. It was all very painful for me."

Bishop Belo emphasized three points in his account:

1. Indonesia never accepted the fact that he, together with fellow East Timorese Jose Ramos-Horta, was awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize;

2. The international community, especially the United Nations and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, must help the people of East Timor maintain election results;

3. There is an urgent and immediate need for humanitarian aid.

Asked by a journalist if he thought it necessary that the Timorese people be given arms in order to respond to attacks from the militias, he replied: "The military have arms to attack us, yet we do not have them with which to defend ourselves." He denied a headline published in an Italian newspaper which attributed to him the words: "Take up arms," addressed to the people of East Timor. In reality, he said: "The use of arms is only legitimate in order to defend oneself from an aggressor."

Another journalist asked if he felt it necessary to create an international tribunal in order to judge crimes against humanity committed in East Timor. Bishop Belo replied: "I ask for nothing, but if there is a crime against humanity, what does humanity do?"

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