Companion to East Timor - The Visit of Pope John Paul II

The Visit of Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II visited East Timor on 12 October 1989. He was the only head of state to visit the territory during the occupation. The Pope's visit carried some risk to the Indonesian authorities, but it offered a potentially huge diplomatic payoff: a successful visit would be the first step in winning international recognition without having to carry out a vote on self-determination. The Indonesians also believed that the devoutly Catholic population of East Timor might be swayed by a papal endorsement of the annexation.

The Indonesian military took direct control of the organisation of the Pope's visit. The East Timorese, for their part, understood what was at stake, writing to the Pope to warn that it might constitute a formal act of recognition. The East Timorese clergy insisted that the Pope say Mass in Tetum, not Bahasa Indonesia. The Vatican envoy preparing the Pope's visit, Father Tucci, suggested a compromise of Latin, with a few sentences in Tetum, and arranged for a short meeting between the Pope and a group of local priests during the visit. While this was going on, the Vatican continued to downplay the political significance of the visit but affirmed that it did not recognise the Indonesian annexation, and would not for as long as East Timor remained on the UN list of non-autonomous territories.

When the Pope arrived at Dili's Comoro airport, he disappointed many East Timorese by not kissing the ground there. The Papal Mass was held at Taci-Tolu, a plain 17 kilometres west of Dili. The location was selected by the Indonesian military. According to one account, it was chosen because it had 'only two entrances, from the west and from the east, so it was easy for the Indonesians to control access.' The Indonesian military had often used Taci-Tolu as an execution site for opponents of integration. The Pope spoke in English, and told the Timorese that 'for many years now, you have experienced destruction and death as a result of conflict; you have known what it means to be the victims of hatred and struggle. Many innocent people have died, while others have been prey to retaliation and revenge… I pray that those who have responsibility for life in East Timor will act with wisdom and goodwill toward all… Your land is much in need of Christian healing and reconciliation.' While quite a few commentators at the time criticized his call for reconciliation as an appeal to the East Timorese to reconcile with their oppressors and give up their struggle, in truth he 'was addressing an urgent and fundamental need for (political) unity, realizing that this would remain unattainable unless the bitter divisions of the past were acknowledged and overcome.' A demonstration broke out at the front of the congregation as the Mass was coming to a close. The inevitable police crackdown followed.