Religion: Catholicism[1] and ancestral cults

The majority of the population is Roman Catholic. According to the 2002 diocese statistics, 749,000 of the country’s total population of 792,000 are Roman Catholics. Current statistics are not yet available about the other religious minorities represented in East Timor, mainly Protestants, Muslims and Hindu-Buddhists. Small concentrations of Protestants (around 20,000) have been reported in Maliana, Aileu, and Baucau as well as in Dili. A smattering of Muslims and Buddhists are also present in Dili. Current numbers are difficult to estimate for these other religions, since most of their adherents were primarily ethnically non-East Timorese who departed after the 1999 separation from Indonesia. During the past three decades, the Catholic religion played an important part in the lives of East Timorese. The Constitution of this new nation, which was ratified on 22 March 2002, under Section 12 recognizes religious freedom and tolerance as long as religious activities are in “due observance of the Constitution and the law.” Furthermore, paragraph 2 of Section 12 declares, “The State shall promote the cooperation with the different religious denominations that contribute to the well-being of the people of East Timor”. In the literature, there has been virtually nothing reported about the practices of Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu-Buddhist minorities in terms of the uniquely East Timorese features of these religions. Protestant missionary groups operate in small numbers in East Timor, however, exact figures are unavailable and it is estimated that after independence the size of the congregation was halved. In 2000 there were about 20,000 church members and only seven pastors to serve them. With the exception of minor tensions in Baucau region between Protestant missionaries and Catholics, the two Christian branches appear to coexist peacefully. Minor isolated incidences of violence have been reported against Muslim mosques in the capital city Dili and in Baucau.  There have also been tensions reported between Muslims of Arabic descent and Muslims of Malay migrant descent.  Unlike other World Religions, animism, mainly focusing on ancestral beliefs has been documented in Portuguese colonial writings. Even currently practiced Catholicism is a highly syncretized or indigenized religion—indigenized through the lenses of traditional cosmologies and belief systems of the East Timorese.

Catholicism, introduced by the Portuguese during the 16th century, initially spread to the more accessibly coastal regions while the mountainous interior provided a geographical barrier (Felgas 1956; Matos 1974; Vasconcelos 1937). After the 1975 Indonesian invasion, 72% of the population still remained animist (; Kohen 2001). While the Portuguese brought Catholicism to East Timor by the 16th century, by the 1975 invasion of Indonesia, the majority (72%) of the population remained animist. This period precipitated a steady stream of conversion to Catholicism among the East Timorese. The importance of Catholicism grew during the Indonesian occupation throughout East Timor in terms of a huge conversion success. The Church was the main provider of protection, the vehicle of non-violent protest and critique of brutalities, as well as the rallying point for the freedom fighting movement (see for example, Carrey 1999; Gunn 2001; Kohen 1998, 2001; Lenox 2000).

Roman Catholicism was introduced to East Timor by the Portuguese by 1515. However, the 1556 arrival of the Dominican friar, António Taveira, marked officially the commencement of a more widespread missionising effort. The East Timorese were never forced to convert however if a local chief converted many of his people would convert as well, therefore the Church’s effort concentrated on the north and south coastal kingdoms during the late 16th century. By 1640 there were 10 missions and 22 churches on Timor. The next wave of expansion of the faith began in 1697 with the return of Friar Manuel de Santo António to Timor. By 1702 the Carmelite order was also present in East Timor. By 1747 there were two seminaries established in Timor, in Oecussi and in Manatuto. The missionising work of the Dominican friars, however, was hampered by a rather tense relationship with the colonial administrative government on East Timor. In 1834 the Dominicans were expelled from East Timor and were replaced by the Jesuit order. The Jesuits’ activities were not successful until the latter part of the 19th century. In addition to Church-State relations, missionising was also curtailed by the long history of East Timorese rebellions against colonial exploitation. From the earliest times, however, the Church has been an important supporter of the native populations against such exploitations. Rebellions against the colonial power structure were often linked to a great variety of revitalization movements throughout history. The Canossian order of nuns returned to Timor in the early 1920s and the Salesian and Jesuit orders returned after the Japanese occupation of WW II.   After the Second Vatican council the Portuguese language was replaced by the Tetum language (1981) as the Catholic rites became vernacularized. While this contributed to the Church’s headways in conversion rates, substantial success did not occur until after the post-colonial Indonesian invasion in 1975 when the Catholic Church ceased to a part of the Portuguese Catholic Church. The Catholic Church became the protector of the masses providing physical refuge and moral support against the brutality of the occupation, and thus incidentally becoming the rallying point for resistance.

The major waves of concentrated efforts in spreading Catholicism in East Timor can be attributed to Friar António Taveira (1556), Bishop Manuel de Santo António (1697-1722), and Bishop António de Castro (1740s) and the bishop of Macau, Father José António Medeiros in 1875. Martinho da Costa Lopes, the apostolic administrator for East Timor and his successor, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo were post WW II native Church leaders with tremendous impact. Bishop Belo is best known for receiving the Nobel Peace Price (along with current foreign minister, Ramos Horta) in 1996. Under Lopes and Belo Catholicism firmly became established as the popular majority religion with an over 90% conversion rate. This success however can be as much attributed to their leadership qualities and their tireless efforts in championing the cause of East Timorese against the oppression and brutality of Indonesian occupation both locally and internationally, as to the refuge, protection and spiritual comfort they provided to the population. After Bishop Belo’s resignation the Apostolic Administrator of Dili was Bishop of Baucau, Basílio do Nascimento (since November 26, 2002). In March 2004 the Pope appointed Father Alberto Ricardo da Silva, the former Rector of the Seminary in Dili, as the new Bishop of Dili. Father Belo has served as parish priest in Mozambique since his resignation and has plans to return to East Timor in June 2005 and continue to serve as a priest in the poor countryside (National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005)


Procession of Mary in Atsabe (May 2002). There is a cult of the Virgin Mary – the statue itself is considered luli (imbued with spiritual potency)

Altar and worshippers during Sunday Mass which in Atsabe is always outdoors next to the chapel


Animistic beliefs and practices have also been recorded produced by anthropologists in the few existing ethnographies on East Timorese cultures (namely on the Viqueque Tetun, the Marobo Kemak, and the Aileu Mambai). Currently on-going ethnographic work on the Atsabe Kemak culture also uncovered the strong presence of animistic beliefs and practices that are frequently syncretized with Catholicism. Colonial history makes copious mention of animism in East Timor and a variety of practices were attributed to this belief system, such as those beliefs surrounding the concept of lulik (sacred places, objects, and persons). Sacred places in local cosmology are linked to associations with founding ancestors, the Creator God, and may include specific mountains, forests, rivers, and even caves. Sacred objects tend to be ancestral heirlooms, especially significant objects from oral history of interaction with Sky God, Mother Earth, or battles with the Lord of the Sea. Even heads of enemies taken are sacred due to the spiritual heat of the soul of the deceased; particularly the souls of those who perished in war, accident, or other unnatural death. Ancestral focused rituals are common and the most significant and elaborate for East Timorese are the funerary rites. Funerary rites are generally expensive due to the number of animals that need be sacrificed or given as part of the gift exchange cycle demanded by obligations of kinship and social relations. Among the Kemak ethnic group, the most elaborate part of the funerary rites are the secondary burials (leko-cicir lia, Kemak language) where a number of deceased relatives bones are dug up, cleaned, and reburied, while the soul of the deceased is guided in ritual chants (nele, Kemak language) by the clan’s sacred man (gase ubu, Kemak Language) to the village of the ancestors on Mount Ramelau. The ritual chants can last over 14 hours as the soul is guided through the origin places of the clan and the places of affinal groups, thus recounting the group’s oral history. This ritual has high costs in animal sacrifices, especially that of water buffalo. Other important East Timorese rituals focus on founding houses and their sacred ancestral objects (lulik). Such sacred houses (uma lulik) have an important role in maintaining traditional social structure and kinship relations. Indeed, after independence a number of such founding houses (uma lulik) that were destroyed in the 1999 post-election rampage were being rebuilt with great fervor in spite of the economic expenses of large-scale animal sacrifice. As a consequence of cultural diversity, there are at least three different styles of sacred houses (uma lulik) present in East Timor. The style of uma lulik that is a tall pile house is now also a national emblem.  Some agricultural rites that focus on the enhancement of fertility of the fields are sometimes still performed but in an attenuated and minimalist manner focusing on planting and harvest only, which local people tend to attribute to a post-colonial attrition and as a consequence of Catholic Church’s policies, attitudes, and anti-animistic actions. However, a late 1960s ethnography on the Kemak suggests that the agricultural cycle rites were performed in their entirety. Rituals tended to be categorized into two types those concerned with life-generation and continuity, and those concerned with death and discontinuity. The specific metaphors and idioms used vary from culture group to culture group. The traditional ritual leaders sometimes coincide with traditional political leaders but nowadays also with Catholic catechists, former war leaders, and current administrative heads.

Atsabe Kemak understanding and attitudes towards what is ‘sacred’ in Catholicism is informed by and indigenized through local cultural beliefs about luli (Kemak). While much of the literature has glossed lulik (Tetun) as magic, this is a grievous misinterpretation and mistranslation. Potent spiritual force or power associated with certain places, objects or persons is a more accurate gloss for luli. Thus, Kemak Catholics view church buildings, cemeteries and personages and objects associated with these places as sacred. Thus, clergy are sacred due to the spiritual potency associated with them, much like the traditional sacred men of the clan or village. The cross and statues of various saints, Jesus, and especially of Mary, are also imbued with spiritual potency and thus are luli. The Virgin Mary is a special focus of local Catholic veneration.  The Mary statue is not only venerated in a similar manner to ancestral objects of luli but is given prominence in many village churches in terms of placement, and regular flower and candle offerings. In most rural areas, outside of settlements, one finds grottos carved out of hill or mountain sides beside the road with a Mary statue that is believed to provide protection (much the same way as certain ancestral spirits) for those who seek it while travelling within the territorial boundaries of the village or municipality.

       Aspects of local Atsabe Kemak belief and ritual systems: As mentioned above, one of the most important rituals for the indigenous cultures concerns the complex cycle of funerary ceremonies (tau tana mate). Funerary ceremonies are the most significant in the Kemak ritual system with large-scale animal sacrifices, and are classified as black rituals, metama no. The three main phases of funerary rites include huku bou, leko-cicir lia, and koli nughu. Brigitte Renard-Clamagirand (1982:143-4), in her ethnography, Marobo: Une Société Ema de Timor, refers to this as taka no lia among the Marobo Kemak with several slight variations in the ritual process. According to Elizabeth G. Traube (1986:200), (Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor), the Mambai also classify funerals as ‘black rituals’. Secondary funerary rituals are also present among the Mambai, (maet-keon) although there does not seem to be an actual exhumation and reburial of the remains.

Amongst the Atsabe Kemak, huku bou is the primary internment of the deceased that requires the sacrifice of at least five buffaloes as well as complementary amounts of goats and pigs. Leko-cicir lia is the secondary treatment rite that is the most economically taxing ritual among all rituals of the Atsabe Kemak. Funerary practices are also one of two types of ceremonies that focus on the maintenance of relations with ancestors and on the continuous ritual restructuring of society and the renewal of social relations between the living and the dead as well as between marriage alliance partners.[2] The ai mea wife-giver and wife-taker houses have a central role in large-scale rituals, such as funerary ceremonies, and rituals cannot commence until they all are present. Ai mea are the houses that are the original and first wife-giving and wife-taking house to the house(s) that is holding the funerary rites for their deceased member(s). The attendance and participation of all the other bei-bei (regular) wife-giving and wife-taking houses is also a strict social requirement. The sacrificial animals provided by the ai mea are the animals whose blood is utilized in smearing ritual objects (such as the grave in funerals). Furthermore, funerals, like all large-scale rituals, must be attended by all the branch houses of the origin house sponsoring the ceremonies (including all the wife-giving and wife-taking house of all the branch houses) as well as those groups/houses that are in a ka’ara-aliri (elder-younger) or sibling/friend-ally relationship to the hosting group. Through the death rituals the most important alliances across the generations are confirmed, through the fulfilment of duties via material contributions, exchanges of goods, and the ‘blessing’ of all the wife-givers of the group whose deceased are honored by such funerary ceremonies. Indeed the role of wife-givers is part of a larger circulation of sacred power (luli) that enhances and contributes to the continuity of life. This circulation also derives from the ancestors and the deceased who will be transformed into ancestors through these rituals. In funerary rituals the contribution of sacrificial animals, in terms of amount and kind of animals, is directly related to the nature of social relationships, and the order of sacrifice itself reflects the hierarchical order of precedence in Atsabe social organization. 

As pointed out above, an important characteristic of Atsabe Kemak death rituals is an elaborate secondary treatment of the dead (which in the past also required the taking of heads). This rite is held for a group of deceased relatives (regardless of rank or social status). These secondary rites are especially a grand-scale for local dignitaries, such as a group’s sacred men (individuals who are believed to possess concentrated and powerful luli, or spiritual potency), the heads of source houses and their family as well as rati, nai, dato (lesser chiefs and leaders of the domain), the traditional ritual leaders and koronel bote (the ruler of the kingdom). For such prominent figures of power and authority of the kingdom this leko-cicir lia ritual is performed for an individual deceased. The timing of the ceremony is usually before the planting season of dry fields (August-September), thus it is also linked with securing ancestral blessing for the success of the upcoming planting season. This secondary treatment not only concerns the physical remains, but more importantly the soul of the dead that are transformed into ancestors. In the local belief system, if the secondary rites have not yet been performed the soul of the deceased is said to stay near the house and village (asi naba coa pu). The longer the leko-cicir lia is delayed, it is believed that the soul of the deceased becomes ever lonelier for companionship, and thus calls the souls of the living to him. So a number of deaths close together in the same family are a sign that the leko must be performed and the souls must be transformed into ancestors and transferred to the ancestral villages. This ceremony, however, usually takes place several years after the first interment as it takes a long time to accumulate the economic means demanded by this rite (e.g. for animal sacrifice, cost of feast, grave construction, payment to the sacred man of the group, gase ubu, who performs the Toli rite, that transforms the soul of the deceased into an ancestor and guides him to the ancestral village). The closing of the Leko ceremony involves taking the cut-off genitals of all sacrificed animals (the means of creation and procreation) into the depth of the sacred forest, ai lara hui, and placing these out of sight at Bia Mata Ai Pun (the source of the spring and trees) and asking the ancestors to replenish (return) the animals that were sacrificed in the transferring of the souls of the deceased to the ancestors. This request is performed through a chant while handling the Loi Ana sacred beads.  In secondary mortuary rites for a ruler, social relations and alliances in an entire kingdom (or now the current administrative units that were part of the former kingdom) become reconfirmed with the fulfilment of ritual obligations and participation.


Dar Lau Mountain—the mythical place of origins of the Atsabe Kemak people—the place where Earth and Sky were connected in primordial times


[1] See for example, Peter Carrey, ‘The Catholic Church, Religious Revival, and the Nationalist Movement in East Timor, 1975-98’, Indonesia and the Malay World,  27, 78 (1999):77-95; Geoffrey C. Gunn, ‘The Five-Hundred-Year Timorese Funu’, in Bitter Flowers, Sweet Flowers: East Timor, Indonesia and the World Community, ed. Richard Tanter, Mark Selden, and Stephen R. Shalom  (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC, 2001),  pp.3-14; Arnold S. Kohen, From the Place of the Dead: The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) and ‘The Catholic Church and the Independence of East Timor’, in Bitter Flowers, Sweet Flowers: East Timor, Indonesia and the World Community, ed. Richard Tanter, Mark Selden, and Stephen R. Shalom  (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC, 2001),  pp.43-51; Rowena Lenox, Fighting Spirit of East Timor: The Life of Martinho da Costa Lopes, (New York: Zen Books, 2000).


[2] Maurice Bloch, Prey into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience, (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992). The living are involved in continuous social interaction and exchange cycles of goods amongst kin. Such social and exchange relations while transformed do not cease just because a kin becomes deceased. Thus the nature of relations between the living and deceased are that of relations between kin.



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