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Bishop Carlos FX Belo interview

April 1st, 2005 · No Comments

In the 50 odd years since he left the catholic mission that was his childhood home, Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo has come a long way.

From Wailakama village on Timor’s north coast, he travelled through seminaries in Rome and Portugal, only to return to a homeland that was under the tyranny of Indonesian occupation, where his brother, uncles and cousins were being used as human shields in a government war on local resistance fighters.

This was a 25 year nightmare which eventually claimed the lives of more than 250,000 East Timorese. From the moment he was appointed Acting Bishop of Dili, East Timor in 1983, Belo was an outspoken critic of the occupation, becoming one of the important voices which forced his nation’s struggle onto the world’s agenda. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with José Ramose Horte in 1996, for their work “towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor”.

East Timor finally won its freedom in May 2002, after a yes vote for independence in September 1999 had brought on Indonesian-led massacres across the country. Bishop Belo himself was the victim of numerous ambushes.

Today, it is hard to imagine this short, softly spoken man with greying curly hair once served as a perpetual thorn in the side of the Suharto regime. Bishop Belo resigned in November 2002 due to health reasons and now works in Mozambique as a Salesian missionary.

Nevertheless, his passion for human rights remains intact and his eyes sparkle when he discusses what he sees as the keystone of building a just global society – education for peace.

“There are so many ideas for diplomatic or political ways to solve this problem [creating a more peaceful world], but I think we have to begin from the grassroots, ” he suggests.

“Creating a culture of peace depends on individuals. How each individual tries to be a peaceful man or women, the attitude of respect for others and the love of justice and compassion. ”

While he stresses the role of individuals, Bishop Belo states that collective efforts at every level of society must be made if peace is to be attained in real terms.

“In the school environment we need to show children how to respect one another; to open their minds and eyes to global poverty and injustice, and to impart in students a solidarity for their fellow man. ”

“The role of the state is important as it is responsible for the development of the nation; not only both economically but also for peace. It has the power to develop a strategy for cooperation and respect. ”A politically free nation that lacks hope will struggle to achieve stability. The despair of unemployment and lack of resources can be a breeding ground of resentment which can lead to violence, according to Bishop Belo.

While East Timor successfully gained independence through predominantly non-violent resistance, the harsh realities of day to day life still remain the same, he says.

“East Timor is independent, but it has many problems.. Sustainable development and the eradication of poverty are needed to give hope, but you also have to tell the people that they have to work and not only wait for the government. ”

On a global scale, small countries like East Timor have few chips to barter, compared to the developed nations, leaving them open to exploitation. Bishop Belo insists that this is no excuse for people to accept their fate. They have to continue to fight for their rights.

“They [East Timor] fought for independence for so long, they have to continue this fight, this struggle for development. ”

Bishop Belo is well-positioned to level such criticisms. To his fellow East Timorese he is a popular hero, a man who refused to bow down to Indonesian rule or to be conquered by fear for his personal safety

But winning such respect in the early days was not an easy task. When he was appointed in 1983, Belo was shunned by the local clergy, who saw him as an inexperienced young priest, chosen by the Vatican for his submissiveness. So much so, they refused to attend his inauguration ceremony.

“It was a difficult time, ” he says smiling. “But little by little, my ideas to preserve the identity of the people were accepted. ”

Bishop Belo discusses his “ideas” as if they were abstract concepts but his understatement masks a cast-iron resolve.

Five months after his ordination he used the pulpit to launch a scathing attack on the 1983 Kraras massacre, when Indonesian troops murdered nearly 300 villagers. In February 1989 he told the President of Portugal, the Pope and the UN Secretary General, that East Timorese were “dying as a people and a nation”, appealing for a UN referendum and international aid.

In 1994 he condemned Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and the Australian government, for “compromising itself” with its close relationship with Indonesia’s Suharto regime.

“Sometimes there are double standards. People talk about human rights but on the other hand there are economic and strategic interests, ” he says.

Strong arm tactics by the Vatican to rein him in failed, as did Indonesia’s attempts to silence him permanently.

He calmly discusses the ambush attacks on him. “Fortunately, I escaped, ” he says, referring to three close shaves, two in 1989 after asking the UN for a referendum on East Timor and another two years later, prior to the Portuguese parliamentary delegation to the country. He fails to mention the September 1999 machine gun and fire bomb attack on his home.

Despite his position as a figurehead of East Timor’s independence movement, Bishop Belo rejects the idea that he had become a political leader of sorts.

“Well I don’t think that was a political role, ” he laughs, “it was more of a moral role. ”

“I said once that sometimes in difficult situations you have to talk. You have to be with the people to hear their voices. If they cannot speak then you have to be their voice. ”

Despite living in a world of “double standards” where the rights of the many are too often dictated by the few, Bishop Belo has hopes for the future. Simple ones, too.

“That we live in peace, but, ” he adds, “to do this we have to create jobs for the young, to give hope to the future generation. ” Amen to that.

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