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Timor - Religion

The US government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (July 2015 estimate). According to the 2010 census, 96.8 percent of the population is Catholic, 2.2 percent Protestant, and less than 1 percent Muslim. Protestant denominations include the Assemblies of God, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Christian Vision Church. There are also several small nondenominational Protestant congregations.

Many citizens also retain animistic beliefs and practices along with their monotheistic religious affiliation. Before, during and after Portuguese rule, the Timorese people maintained a strong belief in animism. Animism is the belief that all nature is alive and filled with unseen spirits that may be worshipped or placated; and/or seeing a soul in trees, rivers, stones, and heavenly bodies. During their 24 year-long occupation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia did not recognize traditional beliefs and required adherence to one of five officially recognized religions. Most citizens of Timor-Leste continue to retain animistic beliefs and practices, which they do not view as incompatible with their formal religious affiliation.

Timor-Leste had a considerable Muslim population during the Indonesian occupation, comprised predominantly of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands. Additionally, a few ethnic Timorese converts to Islam were noted, as well as a small number of descendants of Arab Muslims residing in the country during the era of Portuguese colonial rule prior to 1975. Typically the Arab Muslims were well integrated into Timor-Leste society, however ethnic Malay Muslims often were not, and only a few hundred remained in the country following independence in 2002.

In the past, some of the most prominent immigrants in Timor-Leste were Bugi Muslim businessmen from the south of Sulawesi, who were particularly successful in dominating local markets and fishing. From the middle of the 1990s, the Timorese became active again in these areas, particularly in markets. In Muslim circles, this reaction was considered an attack on Islam. This then moved on to Oe-cusse and Kupang where, in an explosive incident in 1998, the largest establishments were systematically burned. These attacks were also considered by Muslims to be directly aimed at Islam, and contributed to a wave of violence, during which churches were burned in other places.

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship and specifies “religious denominations are separated from the State.” It also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs and guarantees both the right to conscientious objection and freedom to teach any religion. The Ministry of Education defines religious study as an optional subject in public schools. The constitution protects freedom of religion even in the event of a declaration of a state of siege or state of emergency.

There is no official state religion; however, the constitution commends the Catholic Church for its participation in the country’s liberation efforts. In August the government signed a diplomatic agreement with the Holy See that establishes a legal framework for cooperation, grants the Catholic Church autonomy in establishing and running schools, provides tax benefits, safeguards the Church’s historical and cultural heritage, and acknowledges the right of the Church to use foreign missionaries in the country.

The government provided an annual budget allocation to each of the three Catholic dioceses. The direct budget allocations to the dioceses caused some resentment among non-Catholic religious organizations, according to religious leaders. Religious organizations could apply, along with other organizations, for government funding set aside for civil society organizations.

The government coordinated an interreligious forum for religious leaders. Minority religious leaders stated participation in the forum provided a mechanism for raising issues of religious freedom both with other religious groups and with government interlocutors and had proven valuable for addressing concerns in a timely manner, including the threatened expulsion of students in Oecusse. Some leaders, however, indicated they were not aware of the forum. Others said the forum had become overly politicized and too focused on the funding available to religious organizations.

Minority religious leaders reported the government continued to reject marriage and birth certificates from religious organizations other than the Catholic Church as supporting documentation for registering for schools and other official acts. Minority religious groups operating in rural areas reported their churches and members encountered harassment and physical threats. Church members stated these tensions sometimes escalated into physical violence such as rock throwing, property damage, and other threatening behavior towards members. In Ermera, a group, reportedly instigated by the local Catholic priest, destroyed the expanded meeting room for a Protestant religious group. In this case, the community rallied around the targeted group to reconstruct the facility, and the group saw an expansion in membership. In a similar incident in the same district, a different organization reported a group led by a neighboring Catholic priest destroyed work in progress on a church in September 2015.

Many religious organizations, both majority and minority, received significant funding from foreign donors. Muslim leaders stated there were no reports of discrimination against the Muslim community.

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Page last modified: 29-09-2016 20:02:09 ZULU