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Visit to Timor-Leste reveals religious liberty gains

In talks, national leaders demonstrate commitment to 'protect any faith expression,' Adventist religious liberty expert says


[map courtesy World Factbook]

(From left) Adventist Church religious liberty advocate John Graz with José Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Graz later said he was encouraged by the national leader's commitment to prioritize freedom of religion. [photo courtesy PARL]

Cementing 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-Leste earlier this month.

Formerly East Timor, Timor-Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century when in 2002 Indonesia relinquished occupancy of the Southeast Asian island nation it annexed as a province in 1976.

Years of political turmoil left Timor-Leste'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.

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-Leste is 98 percent Roman Catholic, a World Bank report said.

The Adventist Church, established nine years ago in Timor-Leste, now has about 400 members. Classified as a non-governmental agency, it is allowed to operate but 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-Leste's Parliament deputy for Human Rights, Fernanda Borges, recommitted to fulfilling its legal guarantees of religious liberty, said Lincoln Steed, editor of Liberty magazine, a journal of religious freedom 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.