Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July 2014, 14:54 GMT

2009 Report on International Religious Freedom - Timor-Leste

Publisher United States Department of State
Author Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Publication Date 26 October 2009
Cite as United States Department of State, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom - Timor-Leste, 26 October 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ae86101c.html [accessed 24 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

[Covers the period from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009]

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period.

There were isolated reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 5,406 square miles and a population of 1.1 million. According to a 2005 report from the World Bank, 98 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 1 percent Protestant, and less than 1 percent Muslim. Protestant denominations include Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Christian Vision Church. There are also a number of small, nondenominational Protestant congregations. Most Timorese also retain some vestiges of animistic beliefs and practices, which they have come to regard as more cultural than religious.

The country had a significant Muslim population during the Indonesian occupation, composed mostly of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands. There also were a few ethnic Timorese converts to Islam, as well as a small number descended from Arab Muslims living in the country while it was under Portuguese colonial rule prior to 1975. The latter group was well integrated into society, but ethnic Malay Muslims often were not, and only a few hundred remained in the country following independence in 2002.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The law at all levels protects this right in full against abuse, either by governmental or private actors.

There is no official state religion; however, Catholic values remain prominent in the political life of the country. Members of Protestant and Muslim communities also have some political influence and have held high positions in the executive and legislative branches of government, and in the military.

Since 2007 the Secretary of State for Security has had authority to register religious organizations; however, this agency had not yet developed registration procedures by the end of the reporting period.

An October 2003 law on immigration and asylum states that "foreigners cannot provide religious assistance to the Defense and Security Forces, except in cases of absolute need and urgency." Based in part on this law, immigration authorities established residence and visa fees for foreigners residing in the country. Missionaries and other religious figures were exempt from paying these fees.

Police cadets receive training in equal enforcement of the law and nondiscrimination, including religious nondiscrimination.

The Government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Good Friday, Assumption Day, All Saints' Day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period. There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners in the country.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were several credible reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities generally are friendly in the capital of Dili; however, outside of the capital, non-Catholic religious groups are sometimes viewed with suspicion.

During the reporting period, credible sources reported four incidents of societal abuses or discrimination in the country against a Protestant denomination established by foreign missionaries. No fatalities were reported.

On March 15, 2009, a Protestant missionary church in Ainaro reported the church was illegally locked to prevent services from being held. United Nations Police (UNPOL) and the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) reportedly spoke with the instigators, who refused to remove the lock and said the Protestant church should leave. Church activities were suspended temporarily but later resumed.

On February 22, 2009, a group of local residents and youth appeared at the inauguration of a Protestant missionary church in Liquica to stone the church and demand the foreign missionaries leave the country. Windows were broken and three minor injuries were reported. The Portuguese Republican National Guard (GNR), which operates in Timor-Leste as part of an international peacekeeping force, appeared at the scene and peacefully dispersed the crowds.

On December 7, 2008, a group of approximately 800 persons conducted a prayer vigil outside a Protestant missionary church in Aileu to press for its closure. The PNTL arrived at the scene and unsuccessfully attempted to disperse the crowd. On the following day, a contingent of the GNR arrived on the scene and dispersed the crowd peacefully. The GNR reminded the protestors that Timor-Leste is a democracy and that freedom of religion is protected and enshrined in its Constitution.

Protests at the missionary church in Aileu began on November 20, 2008, when a group of local residents and youth appeared at the newly built Protestant church and stoned the building. The protestors insisted the country is a Catholic nation, demanded the missionaries leave, then dispersed voluntarily after a couple of hours. Windows were broken but no injuries were reported. Following the incident, local authorities asked the church to temporarily suspend its activities. The church reopened two weeks later after making repairs. At the end of the reporting period, the Office of the Prosecutor General was investigating the incidents.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. government regularly expresses support to government leaders for consolidation of constitutional democracy, including respect for basic human rights such as religious freedom.

In addition, the U.S. government maintained a dialogue with members of the National Parliament during their deliberations on legislation affecting religious freedom. The U.S. government supported the justice sector to encourage the development of judicial institutions to promote the rule-of-law and ensure respect for religious freedom as guaranteed in the Constitution.

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