Evangelical Protestants make in roads into Timor-Leste

Jose de Oliviera, 46, was working in the Manu Fahe restaurant in Manufahi District on the south coast of Timor-Leste, about six hours drive from the capital Dili, when some Brazilian missionaries came to call.

Aug 09, 2018

By Michael Sainsbury and Jose Belo
Jose de Oliviera, 46, was working in the Manu Fahe restaurant in Manufahi District on the south coast of Timor-Leste, about six hours drive from the capital Dili, when some Brazilian missionaries came to call.

“I liked their message and, after a while, every Wednesday, a group of us would get together with them and pray,” de Oliviera tells ucanews.com.

Then a Catholic, like as much of 90 percent of the country, at least nominally, he responded to the message from the missionaries.

“When I learned to be evangelical and practiced it, my life changed a lot and I have seen a lot of changes in myself,” he says.

“When I was young I [was] always drunk and fighting with others. I was a thief before I became evangelical. I was a smoker, but since I converted I have freed myself from these bad habits.

“When I converted most of my wife’s family, my family hated me and even threatened me. I did not force my family to join me but my wife, my mother and my sister eventually followed me.”

Timor-Leste is very much a majority Catholic country due to the influence of its Portuguese colonial masters for 500 years, as well as in reaction to the Indonesian occupation after Portugal walked away from its colonies in 1974. At the time and into the 1980s, many who practiced traditional animism converted to the Catholic Church as a “safe haven” from the Muslim overlords they were battling in the jungles.

Protestant missionaries of many stripes have tried their hand — and succeeded in many instances — at converting the locals. The Protestant Church of East Timor was established in 1979. Still, traditional animist religions keep thriving in Timor-Leste, particularly away from the major towns in the half island nation of 1.3 million people, often in tandem with Catholicism.

One of the latest arrivals, in 2006, was a well-funded group from Brazil who shared a common colonial heritage and language with this tiny nation, half a world away: the Igreja Evangelica Visao Crista de Timor-Leste (IVTL), or The Vision of Christ Evangelical Church.

IVTL is a branch of a major Brazilian evangelical Protestant church originally founded in that country by Canadian missionaries. After IVTL was founded in Timor-Leste with 36 Brazilian missionaries, locals were later trained, ordained, and worked alongside them.

Julio Cuca who is based in Baucau District, home to the country’s second city that shares the same name, said he decided to join the Protestant faith, along with his 10 brothers and sisters.

“I was an animist in 1982 when the missionaries from the Protestant Christian Church in East Timor in Atauro Island came to Aileu District,” he tells ucanews.com.

“My family background is animism and we were converted into the evangelical Church.”

Cuca and his family eventually moved to the IVTL and he decided to become a pastor in the church. He studied in Ambon, an island in the northeast of the Indonesian province Maluku, which has a history of sectarian violence. Ambon is about 70 percent Christian with 40 percent of those evangelical, according to The Joshua Project, an evangelical website.

“I studied theology and agriculture. We have very good relations with the Church in Kupang [the major city on the Indonesian half of Timor] and in Ambon and we are also working very closely with the Churches in Australia and Singapore,” Cuca says. In 2008 the Evangelical Presbyterian Church was set up by Australian missionaries and claims over 4,000 members.

Cuca now acts as a coordinator for the evangelicals in four districts in the east of the country: Lautem, Baucau, Viqueque and Manatuto. --LCI (international.la-croix.com)

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