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East Timor, also known as Timor Leste, is a country in Asia bordering Indonesia.
The religious diversity in Timor-Leste is quite spectacular. Surrounded by Indonesia and the Indonesian Islands, where the main religion is Islam, East Timor has a predominantly Catholic population.
It is essential to note that East Timor did have a significant Muslim population. However, a major portion of that population, including and especially the ethnic Malay Muslims, shifted to West Timor when East Timor was liberated from the grips of the Indonesian authorities. East Timor is also home to Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, and a few other religions. Apart from these, the traditional religion in East Timor is animism; however, in present times, animism does not exist independently in most cases.
To learn more about the religions of East Timor, keep reading! You can also check out Aztec religion facts and Brazil religion facts.
Both Protestantism and Islam are minority religious groups of East Timor. While the former accounts for 1% of the population, the Muslim community forms a mere 0.2% of the country.
Protestantism: The genesis of Protestantism took place in the 16th century as a kind of movement against the errors of the Catholic Church. Soon enough, it spread to several regions of the world, and today, the second largest form of Christianity happens to be Protestantism. The Protestant Christian Church in East Timor was established in 1979. The Church was established by small groups of East Timorese who identified as Protestants. A number of Protestant churches were also built by the Indonesian military personnel following this sect of Christianity. Quite a few groups of Protestants, namely Methodist, Baptist, Jehova's Witness, and Assemblies of God, reside in East Timor. Out of all these, Assemblies of God form the largest group. In present times, the Protestant Christian Church in East Timor is involved in a number of community services.
Islam: Despite being once under the Indonesians, a Muslim-majority country in East Timor, Islam is one of the minority religious groups. Most of the Muslims in the country are Sunni, which is the largest section of Islam. The majority of the members of this minority religion occupy the capital of the country, known as Dili. The first prime minister of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, identifies as a Sunni Muslim, as well.
Since most members of both groups were in support of the Indonesians, once East Timor gained freedom, the Protestants and Muslims, notably the Ethnic Malay Muslims, all left the country to settle in West Timor.
Out of the various religious beliefs in East Timor or Timor-Leste, the dominant religion is that of Roman Catholicism. More precisely, 99% of the population in the country identify as Roman Catholics. Despite being the dominant religion, Catholicism is not the state religion. Interestingly, the main reason for the rise of Catholicism in East Timor was the Indonesian rule that lasted from 1975-2002. A part of the worldwide Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church of East Timor is under the spiritual leadership of the Pope himself.
The evolution of Catholicism in East Timor makes for quite a fascinating read. Before the Indonesian occupation, East Timor was under the control of the Portuguese for nearly 400 years. The Portuguese era in East Timor was briefly interrupted by the Japanese occupation during World War II. You must be wondering why did the Portuguese visit East Timor. Well, initially, the Portuguese explorers came to the country in search of spices. Soon enough, they occupied the country and started deporting their political prisoners to their occupied land. However, it was the Portuguese merchants who brought along Jesuit priests and thus, introduced Catholicism in the country. There were also visits from missionaries during this time. Eventually, the Catholic Church became a safe haven for the indigenous people against the colonizers, as the Church fought for the protection of human rights and shielded the common people from forced labor, demanded by the Portuguese. Hence, many people converted to Catholicism from their indigenous religions. Apart from protection, the Catholic Church also took on the responsibility of educating the East Timorese, which further established their importance in society.
However, it was during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor that the Roman Catholic population increased drastically. In fact, more than 90% of the population converted to Roman Catholicism during this time. This was primarily because the Indonesian authorities did not recognize any traditional religious beliefs, and hence, most East Timorese had no other option but to convert to Catholicism.
Even during the Indonesian occupation, the Roman Catholic Church provided the common people protection against human rights violations. In fact, a lot of Catholic religious leaders risked their lives in order to voice protest against the injustices done by the Indonesians. One such name was of Catholic Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, who advocated for the protection of the human rights of the East Timorese. The bishop later went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, along with José Ramos- Horta, who was the president of East Timor from 2007-2017, for their efforts to end the Indonesian occupation. Pope John Paul II had also visited East Timor while it was under the rule of the Indonesians to deliver a message of peace.
After the end of the Indonesian occupation, East Timor became second to Philipines in Southeast Asia for having the second-largest Catholic population.
The influence of Catholicism in the politics of the country is significant. It was the Church that pushed the agenda for religious education in the schools of East Timor. However, the Church recommended not only Catholic studies but also education related to other minority religions. It is fascinating to note that the Church owns a number of private schools in East Timor.
Apart from Protestant and Muslim communities, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha'i Faith, and Chinese folk religion are other religious minorities in the country of Timor-Leste.
Traditionally, East Timor had no Hindu population of its own. Hence, the Hindus present in the country today are all immigrants. Most of these migrants came to East Timor from Bali when the country was under Indonesian occupation. However, after East Timor gained independence, a lot of them moved back, and hence, the number of Hindus in East Timor is really low, at only 271. Most of these Hindus are followers of Balinese Hinduism, a form of Hindusim developed in Bali. The largest Balinese Temple of East Timor, Pura Girinatha, is present in Taibesi, an area that is south of the capital city of Dili.
The number of Buddhists in East Timor is undetermined. However, it is a very small portion of the population, as combined with the Chinese Folk religion, only 0.2% of the population account for these two faiths. The Baha'i Faith, a relatively newer form of religion, has less than 0.1% followers in the country.
With a number of religions existing in Timor-Leste, the degree of religious freedom in the country is quite interesting to study. A number of studies and observations have been made to understand how religious freedom is continuing to operate in the country.
According to the Constitution of East Timor, religious freedom is guaranteed to all citizens. Additionally, the country has no official state religion, and religious organizations play no role in matters of the state and vice versa. However, the former is not fully true, as you already know by now, the role the Church played and continues to play in matters of politics. The government takes a strong stand against discrimination based on religious identity and guarantees the right to teach any religion.
Though overall, no systematic oppression of any particular religious group seems to exist, there are sporadic occurrences of religious issues. There have been instances where leaders of certain religious organizations have denied serving members of a different faith. Additionally, the government has been accused of consistently denying essential documents like birth or marriage certificates to members of minority groups. There was also a complaint filed by a Protestant group, saying a local community of another religion prevented them from using land to build a Protestant church. Furthermore, there have been complaints by Muslim leaders against the discrimination faced by candidates applying for civil services in the country.
There are some benefits that are afforded to all the religious organizations of Timor-Leste. For instance, these organizations can apply for tax exemption. Additionally, under the directives of the Prime Minister, funds are also provided to the organizations when applied for. Apart from serving Catholic causes, funds from the office of the Prime Minister have also served Protestant and Muslim groups. In 2018, a Protestant church was constructed with the fund money, while an orphanage was built in a mosque to serve the Muslims.
Within the communities, religious freedom is present. Even then, there are cases of intolerance from time to time. This was observed in the case of some people of Catholic and animistic beliefs converting to Protestantism, as they ended up being prejudiced and discriminated against in their communities.
Animism is a form of religious belief in which some animals, places, and even non-living objects are worshipped as all of these are thought to have a spiritual essence. The indigenous religious belief of East Timor was animism. In present times, it exists independently but is predominantly practiced by the East Timorese in association with other faiths.
For the indigenous people of the country, rocks, trees, and landmarks were all considered to be sacred. Several animals were also regularly worshipped. Out of all the animals, eels and dogs held the most special position. Interestingly, the warriors of East Timor were known as 'asu sin', which translates to dog feet. Additionally, the creation of the island of which East Timor is a part was also attributed to an animal. Legends say, a boy rescued a baby crocodile, with whom he traveled to various places of the world. When the crocodile passed away, his body transformed into the island of Timor. This crocodile came to be known as 'grandfather crocodile', and crocodiles are still considered to be a religious symbol. In present times, animistic beliefs are present in association with other faiths, especially Catholicism.
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