Islam in East Timor

The majority of the population of East Timor is Catholic, and the Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution.[1] There are also small Protestant and Muslim communities.[1]


According to a 2005 World Bank report, 98 percent of the population is Catholic, 1 percent Protestant, and less than 1 percent Muslim.[1] Most citizens also retain some vestiges of animistic beliefs and practices, which they have come to regard as more cultural than religious.[1]

The number of Protestants and Muslims declined significantly after September 1999 because these groups were disproportionately represented among supporters of integration with Indonesia and among the Indonesian civil servants assigned to work in the province from other parts of Indonesia, many of whom left the country in 1999.[1] The Indonesian military forces formerly stationed in the country included a significant number of Protestants, who played a major role in establishing Protestant churches in the territory.[1] Fewer than half of those congregations existed after September 1999, and many Protestants were among those who remained in West Timor.[1] The Assemblies of God is the largest and most active of the Protestant denominations.[1]

The country had a significant Muslim population during the Indonesian occupation, composed mostly of ethnic Malay immigrants from Indonesian islands.[1] There were also a few ethnic East Timorese converts to Islam, as well as a small number descended from Arab Muslims living in the country while it was under Portuguese authority.[1] The latter group was well integrated into society, but ethnic Malay Muslims at times were not.[1] Only a small number of ethnic Malay Muslims remained.[1]

Domestic and foreign missionary groups operated freely.[1]

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.[1] Societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice occur, but they are relatively infrequent.[1]


The Roman Catholic Church in East Timor is part of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church, under the spiritual leadership of the Pope and curia in Rome. There are over 900,000 Catholics in East Timor, a legacy of its status as a former Portuguese colony. Since its independence from Indonesia, East Timor became only the second predominantly Catholic country in Asia (after the Philippines) - approximately 96% of the population is Roman Catholic.

The country is divided into three dioceses; Dili, Maliana and Baucau, all of which are immediately subject to the Holy See.

The Apostolic Nuncio to East Timor is concurrently the nuncio to Indonesia.[2] The current nuncio is Italian archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, and the nunciature is located in Jakarta.[3]


In the early 16th century, Portuguese and Dutch traders made contact with East Timor. Missionaries maintained a sporadic contact until 1642 when Portugal took over and maintained control until 1974, with a brief occupation by Japan during World War II.[4]

Pope John Paul II visited East Timor in October 1989. Pope John Paul II had spoken out against violence in East Timor, and called for both sides to show restraint, imploring the East Timorese to "love and pray for their enemies." [5] Retired bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize along with José Ramos-Horta in 1996 for their attempts to free East Timor from Indonesia.[6] The Roman Catholic Church remains very involved in politics, with its 2005 confrontations with the government over religious education in school and the forgoing of war crimes trials for atrocities against East Timorese by Indonesia.[7] They have also endorsed the new Prime Minister in his efforts to promote national reconciliation.[8] In June 2006 Catholic Relief Services received aid from the United States to help victims of months of unrest in the country.[9]


Islam is a minority religion in East Timor. The US State Department and the CIA World Factbook estimate that Muslims make up 1% of the population.[10] East Timor's first prime minister, Mari Alkatiri is a Sunni Muslim.

Freedom of religion in East Timor

The Constitution of East Timor provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. There were minimal reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.

Legal and policy framework

Although the Constitution became effective in 2002, the Government has continued to enforce some Indonesian laws and United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) regulations not yet superseded by the Constitution or national legislation. The Constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship for all persons and stipulates that no one shall be persecuted or discriminated against on the basis of religious convictions. The Government generally protected this right. Police cadets receive training in equal enforcement of the law and nondiscrimination.

In 2003 a law on immigration and asylum went into effect that includes two articles concerning religion. The first article requires religious associations to register with the Minister of Interior if most or all members are foreigners. Registration entails submitting documents setting forth objectives, statutes, or bylaws, and a membership list. At least one established foreign Protestant group reported that it had trouble registering due to bureaucratic obstruction. The second provision states that "foreigners cannot provide religious assistance to the Defense and Security Forces, except in cases of absolute need and urgency." Based in part upon this law, immigration authorities established residence and visa fees for foreigners residing in the country.

There is no official state religion, although Catholicism remains dominant. Most designated public holidays are Catholic holy days, including Good Friday, Assumption Day, All Saints' Day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and Christmas.

In 2005 the Government established a consultative body on religious education in public schools. The consultative body consisting of members of the Government and religious organizations met in 2006 but produced no concrete results.

Political influence

After assuming the office of Prime Minister in July 2006, José Ramos-Horta repeatedly emphasized the importance of government consultation with the Catholic Church on all major decisions; however, members of Protestant churches and the Islamic community also have some political influence and have held high positions in the executive branch of government, the military, and the National Parliament.

Societal abuses and discrimination

There were minimal reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.

The Catholic Church is the dominant religious institution, and its priests and bishops are accorded the highest respect in local society. Attitudes toward the small Protestant and Muslim communities generally are friendly in the capital of Dili, despite the past association of these groups with the occupying Indonesian forces. Outside of the capital, non-Catholic religious groups sometimes have been viewed with suspicion.

Non-Catholic Christian groups operating in the countryside also reported that their ministries sometimes encountered hostility. These tensions at times escalated into incidents of harassment and low-level violence, primarily in more remote communities in the districts. According to Protestant leaders, individuals converting from Catholicism to Protestantism were subject to harassment by family members and neighbors, and in some cases clergy and missionaries were threatened or assaulted. In several instances village leaders refused to allow missionaries to proselytize in their villages, and in at least one case a Protestant group was unable to build a chapel because of opposition from neighbors and local officials. Most Protestant leaders reported that Catholic Church officials and government authorities were helpful in resolving disputes and conflicts when they occurred.


  • United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. public domain.
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