Visit to Timor-L´este Reveals
Religious Liberty Gains
In talks, national leaders demonstrate commitment to “protect any faith expression,”
Adventist religious liberty leader says.
BY ELIZABETH LECHLEITNER, Adventist News Network
ementing religious pluralism is “no small task” in a country that has struggled for national unity for decades, a Seventh-day Adventist religious liberty advocate said after visiting the Democratic Republic of Timor-L´este in early March.
Formerly known as East Timor, Timor-L´este became the first new sovereign state of the twenty-first century when in 2002 Indonesia relinquished occupancy of the Southeast Asian island it annexed as a province in 1976.
Years of political turmoil left Timor-L´este’s citizens leery of any influences that might fracture their nation’s fledgling democracy, said John Graz, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist Church.
PRESIDENTIAL MEETING: (From left:) Adventist Church religious liberty advocate John Graz with José Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Graz later said he was encouraged by the national leader’s commitment to prioritize freedom of religion.
Some view religious pluralism as one such “dividing factor,” he said. “Many people think, ‘Why do we need Adventists? We already have Christians in our country.’”
A former Portuguese colony, Timor-L´este is 98 percent Roman Catholic, a World Bank report said.
The Adventist Church, established nine years ago in Timor-L´este, now has about 400 members there. Classified as a nongovernmental agency, it is allowed to operate but is not recognized as a church by the East-Timorese government, Graz said. The country’s constitution grants churches religious freedom, but there is “no specific legislation” for NGOs, he added.
In meetings with national president José Ramos-Horta, Graz said he learned the country’s leaders are increasingly committed to religious liberty, but challenges to implementation remain.
“It was interesting to witness how a newly democratic state with a majority religion deals with minorities, including the Adventists,” Graz said. “Our members there wanted us to show the government that the Adventist Church is a serious, international church.”
During the visit, Timor-L´este’s parliamentary deputy for human rights, Fernanda Borges, recommitted to fulfilling its legal guarantees of religious liberty, said Lincoln Steed, editor of Liberty magazine, a religious freedom journal established by Adventists.
“The government must do more to ensure that local authorities uphold the laws,” Borges told Steed, Graz, and local Adventist leaders who joined in talks with the officials. Borges also vowed to look into reports of religious discrimination in the nation’s public schools.
“East Timor . . . has a difficult past, but a firm commitment to rebuild and protect any faith expression,” Steed said.