In the intenational media furor surrounding East Timor’s recent resumption of political unrest, what has often gone unremarked is the fact that the tiny, embattled nation has an overwhelmingly Catholic majority population with deeply conservative social values.
East Timor’s Christian social values have been under attack for decades, first from invasion by the Islamic Indonesian state that undertook a project of social genocide with systematic rape and cultural suppression and, since independence, more subtly, from the hard-core secularist philosophies of the international aid organizations sent to help rebuild the country’s social and economic infrastructure.
East Timor exploded into the news again this April, when the unpopular government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri attempted to fire 600 soldiers from the military. Political factions and popular demonstrations, as well as poverty and a nearly 40 per cent unemployment rate, have contributed to the unrest and street violence and have resulted in 30 deaths and up to 30,000 people being displaced.
In late May, a 2,500-strong Australian international force of military and police was deployed at the request of the East Timorese government to restore order.
The 24-year-long occupation of East Timor by neighbouring Indonesia, from 1975 to 1999, and the savage attacks by the military and Indonesian-supported “militias” after the 1999 vote for independence, shocked the world with its almost unimaginable levels of violence.
East Timor, as a former Portugese colony, is over 90 per cent Catholic and, during the occupation, it is estimated that at least 250,000 people – roughly a third of the population – were killed by the Indonesian forces. The invaders employed systematic rape, sexual slavery, forced labour, sporadic massacres, starvation, forced resettlement and forced sterilizations and abortions in an effort to exterminate the ethnically and religiously distinct East Timorese people.
Since the ousting of the Indonesians and the establishment of a UN-backed democratic government, innumerable international aid organizations such as the UNFPA, World Health Organization and smaller UN-funded groups have brought not only much needed material assistance, but also the full canon of “reproductive and sexual rights,” ideologies, feminist and secularist Western sexual mores that are alien and hostile to East Timor’s Christian culture.
When the aid organizations arrived, they were shocked to discover that rape victims, though they invariably reported that they felt “soiled and shamed,” and were often ostracized by their families upon their return home, found their children were uniformly a source of joy and healing. One woman reported that she never thought of abandoning her son, the child of a militia rapist. “I have to accept the baby,” she said. “He was given by God.”
One reporter said that no one who works with raped women in East Timor can recall a single instance of a woman abandoning a child because it is the product of rape. Bernard Kerblatt, the chief of operations for the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees in East Timor, said that the children of rape victims enjoyed a much higher-than-usual level of acceptance by the families of their mothers. He told news reporters in 2001 that he ranked East Timorese mothers as among the least bitter towards their children, compared with raped women in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
The Catholic aid agency Caritas says that the birth rate stands at 7.5 births per woman of childbearing years and notes it is the highest in the world. Local women’s organizations have pressured the government to include abortion in the draft criminal code.
The inculcation of feminism’s sexual orthodoxies into another Catholic country has obviously begun, however. According to reports from the organizations’ websites, the efforts are assisted by priests who solemnly declare at meetings of East Timorese women’s groups that their church “is mistaken” about many doctrines, particularly those having to do with sex and the family.
Dr. Robert Walley, head of the pro-life women’s health organization MaterCare International, visited East Timor in 2000 and found that the few native doctors were worried about what the World Health Organization was up to. They were calling for the establishment of a separate Catholic system that would protect mothers from abortion coercion. Walley said, “I met with officials at WHO and CNRT (the government-in- waiting), the latter headed by U.S. officials, and was struck by how aggressive they were in imposing their views and their values on the people.”
In June 2005, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, speaking in Portugal, said that a recent agreement between the government and the church had “opened the door” to discuss abortion and other “sensitive” issues, such as prostitution. While abortion remains a crime in the draft criminal code, Alkatiri said abortion was an issue affecting the “conscience of each citizen and has the merit of opening debate to all society.”
Alkatiri responded to demands from a local women’s group to create laws outlawing abortion, saying that the subject was open to discussion under the government’s agreement with the church and that the government would be holding public debates to “listen to opinions”. He added that it was up to the parliament to decide whether abortion was a crime.
The East Timor Action Network (ETAN) reports that in October the same year, a government “Permanent Working Group” opened discussions on abortion in order to “get a deeper understanding about this subject.” The Working Group concluded that because “abortion is a sensitive issue,” the government would need to obtain input from scheduled meetings with 20 women’s groups.
The slide towards the new mentality, however, may be on hold, with anti- government demonstrations growing and supported by the church. Approximately 30,000 refugees are crowding into church-run compounds. The religious communities supervising the refugees will likely be keeping a close eye on the activities of aid organizations, which include gynecological clinics staffed and funded by the abortion-promoting UNFPA.