WHEN BISHOP Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, the apostolic administrator of East Timor, became the first Catholic prelate to win the Nobel Peace Prize this fall, he used the occasion to focus international attention on his troubled flock.

East Timor, a colony of Portugal until 1975, was invaded and annexed by neighboring Indonesia a year later. The fighting and famine that followed the invasion left up to 200,000 dead, according to human rights groups. The population of the island is only 720,000—but 90 percent is Catholic.

The Nobel Prize, awarded jointly to Bishop Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, an East Timorese activist with ties to the island's guerrilla movement, lends new legitimacy to the resistance to Indonesian rule. The government has dismissed the movement as minute and unrepresentative of the East Timorese. However, at present Australia is the only country in the world to formally recognize the annexation.

The Nobel Peace Prize is “a recognition [of] the people of East Timor, the suffering they have undergone and the sacrifices they have made for peace. I just do my part as a man of the Church to work for peace,” Bishop Belo told the Register last month. “For the Church in East Timor, the award is both a recognition and an encouragement to work for more peace and reconciliation.”

Bishop Belo, 48, a Salesian, said he learned of his award during a thanksgiving Mass for members of his order completing 50 years of missionary work in East Timor. When the vicar general asked Bishop Belo whether to break the news in church, he declined. The prelate has emphatically discouraged any celebrations. “We should be fasting for peace rather than feasting,” he said.

Following the massacre of more than 200 pro-independence demonstrators in Dili in 1991, Bishop Belo was instrumental in prompting the Indonesian government to investigate the killings and apprehend the army officers responsible for the carnage. Bishop Belo said Indonesia's East Timor policy has resulted in “hundreds of villages burnt and houses looted. There were killings of civilians, arbitrary detentions, tortures, violations of the human body and the consequent trauma among the family members and the next generation. … But the greater sacrifice being made by the people are the steps they take toward reconciliation and peace in the name of Christ.”

Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in July 1976 and soon claimed it as its 27th province. In the years since, East Timor's Muslim population has undergone rapid growth. More than 75,000 Indonesians have migrated there since the annexation. “The government does not have a formal or explicit policy of encouraging only Muslim settlers in East Timor. However there are indications and signs of Islamization here,” said Bishop Belo. Public schools have Muslim teachers and head masters and some groups offer material enticements for converts to Islam, he added.

On his first visit to East Timor in seven years, shortly after the Nobel announcement, Indonesia's President Raden Suharto and Bishop Belo rode side by side in a helicopter on their way to attend the Oct. 18 inauguration in Dili of a 90-foot-tall statue of Christ the King. But the president made no mention of the award to Bishop Belo.

But the Indonesian bishops&spos; conference welcomed the award as an honor “for the sake of justice and peace.” Bishop Martinus Situmorang, secretary general of Indonesian bishops&spos; conference, told the Register that “as a religious man, [Bishop Belo] has been committed in his efforts to human rights, human dignity and to promote peace and dialogue. He acted for the good of the people and not with vested interests.”

However, Bishop Situmorang, a Capuchin, said the Nobel prize “means little to the Indonesian Church,” saying that its significance is lost on the majority of the population. It will not have much impact on Christian-Muslim relations in a country where more than 160 million of its 191 million people are Muslims, he added.

While acknowledging that the Indonesian government is very “political” on the East Timor question, Bishop Situmorang said the Indonesian Church is “sympathetic and supportive of the aspirations of the Catholics in East Timor in their longing and endeavor to live a peaceful life and enjoy their basic human rights.” The mainland Church regularly aids the East Timor Catholic community, taking in students for the priesthood in the major seminaries, for example.

However, the Indonesian hierarchy concurs with most Indonesians in its reaction to Jose Ramos-Horta being named co-recipient of the peace prize. Critics accuse 51-year-old RamosHorta, head of FRETILIN—a Portuguese acronym for Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor— of approving murders and torture prior to the invasion by Indonesia. An Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman called Ramos-Horta a “political opportunist” and questioned the Nobel Prize Committee's selection criteria, even as he avoided comment on Bishop Belo. “We do not know how a political person like Ramos-Horta can be placed [on a par] with … Bishop Belo. It is surprising that a religious leader and political activist are given the same honor for the same cause,” said Bishop Situmorang.

Bishop Belo has also come under some scrutiny, albeit from other quarters. In some Church circles, he is considered to have “leftist” leanings or is seen at least as over-politicized. In 1988, the bishop was rebuked by the then-nuncio in Jakarta for writing in a pastoral letter: “We are dying as a people and a nation.” Vatican officials are said to support the bishop on the pastoral and doctrinal level, but they keep their distance in the political realm. One of their biggest concerns is Christian-Muslim relations in Indonesia proper. But the Indonesian bishops&spos; conference stands by the prelate. “[Bishop] Belo isn't leftist, nor even too political,” Bishop Situmorang said. “That political connotations are emerging is quite natural and normal. We have to see the whole picture. …”

Bishop Belo said he pushes no political agenda. “I try to practice the social doctrines of the Church,” he said. “As for the opinion that bishops should confine themselves to spiritual matters, that is lacking something. The flock entrusted to us are not just spirits. We work for the human being as a whole, not just spiritually … other aspects have to be given attention. For those in the West, this might be difficult to understand. Here conditions are different. When the people are suffering, is it possible to keep quiet? If you speak of human rights in India, are you a leftist?”

Regarding accusations that RamosHorta supports violent means in the East Timor struggle, Bishop Belo said: “I have not really known him for a long time.” The two have met on a few occasions, most recently at a U.N.-sponsored seminar on East Timor in Austria last year. Bishop Belo pointed out that others “who have been accused of violence in the past like Nelson Mandela and [Yassar] Arafat” have also received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Salesian Father Julian Fox said that the Nobel committee has tried to be “cleverly even-handed.” “To have just given the award to [Bishop] Belo might not have brought the international attention. Ramos-Horta is the free agent and represents the Timorese cause at large. The award is of course to real people, but in this case it also recognizes a cause … and past experience (South Africa, for example) shows that a just cause gains some impetus from such an award.” The Nobel Prize committee said as much in announcing the $1.2 million award in Oslo last month: “By awarding this prize,” it said, “we hope to contribute to a diplomatic solution to the conflict.”

Close to 2,000 members of the youth wing of Indonesia's ruling Golkar party marched in Jakarta Nov. 12 demanding that Bishop Belo be exiled from the country, following publication of an interview in a German magazine in which he reportedly said that Indonesian troops had trampled on East Timor's independence “and treated us like dogs.” Students at the University of East Timor launched a counter-protest march in support of Bishop Belo and to mark the infamous 1991 Dili massacre by Indonesian troops.

Bishop Belo said he plans to use his share of the prize money ($600,000) to strengthen the recently-launched Justice and Peace Commission of Dili, to build a major seminary for the region, and to fund scholarships. Bishop Belo said the task ahead is “to continue promoting justice, peace and reconciliation,” adding that only continued dialogue among the East Timorese, Indonesia and Portugal—under U.N. direction—can bring about a lasting peaceful solution.

Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi, India.