Catholic faith can coexist with ancestral worship

By Michel Chambon, 22 January 2023
A 13 August 2015 file image of of a Cristo Rei Christ statue located atop a globe on a summit, overlooking Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. Image: maloff/


Doctor Judith Bovensiepen teaches Social Anthropology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Her research explored post-conflict recovery as well as oil development in rural Timor Leste, one of the only two Catholic-majority countries in Asia.

In 2015, she published her book, The Land of Gold: Post-Conflict Recovery and Cultural Revival in Independent Timor-Leste, which explores the process of Timor-Leste people rebuilding their lives after more than two decades of violence and forced dislocation. In particular, the book highlights the key role of ancestor worship in addressing the region’s specific kind of tensions.


Could you tell us what brought you to study post-conflict resolution?

There are several things that attracted me in Timor-Leste. Most notably, I was interested in its anti-colonial movement, and later in its resistance to Indonesian occupation. I am from Berlin, but I grew up in this alternative milieu and was interested in a left-wing political movement. Initially, the anti-colonial movement in Timor-Leste was a socialist one. That was one I was interested in at the time. I studied anthropology and anthropologically speaking, this was a fascinating place. But there were several coincidences that brought me to do fieldwork in Timor-Leste.


Can you give us a review of the conflict, war and massacres in Timor-Leste between 1975 and 2000?

A bit of history will help us understand it better. The eastern part of Timor Island was a Portuguese colony, and the western part, like many other parts in Southeast Asia, was a Dutch colony. After the Second World War, Indonesia struggled against colonial rule and became an independent nation. The Dutch-occupied western part became part of Indonesia, but its eastern part remained a Portuguese colony.

That was the time independence movements were developing in many other parts of the world. Such moves emerged in the Portuguese colony too, but with wide differences of opinion among different political parties. The pro-Portuguese party, the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT — Uniao Democratica Timorense), was looking at independence after being part of a Portuguese federation for some time. The more socialist-inspired independence party Fretilin, or Frente Revolucionaria de Timor-Leste Independente, campaigned for independence.

Fretilin declared independence on Nov 28, 1975, and nine days later the Indonesian military invaded. Formally, the invasion was projected as an attempt to prevent communism from developing in Southeast Asia. But there were other motives of course. For example, the fact that oil had been identified in offshore waters and south of the island of Timor. The Indonesian military occupied Timor-Leste soon after it declared independence, and it was an extremely violent occupation.

They invaded from land, sea, and air, from all sides, and continued it over the next 24 years. There were initially pockets of resistance in the highlands of the country, but slowly they were quashed. Until the Indonesian occupation ended in 1999, people put up resistance against the occupation, which included armed struggle led by guerrilla fighters.

There were also other forms of resistance. There was civilian resistance, diplomatic resistance and the Catholic Church, which played quite a big role.


Is it correct to say about one-fourth of the population died over those 25 years?

Numbers often differ. An estimated 100,000 people died directly in conflict-related deaths. But many died as a consequence of the occupation, such as starvation or poverty. That’s why it is estimated that a fourth of the population died in the 25 years of conflict.

In the 1999 referendum, the majority voted in favor of independence and another series of massacres followed. The Indonesian military systematically destroyed infrastructure and carried out mass killings together with pro-Indonesian militias. The occupation was violent and it ended with violence.


Could you tell us how you conducted research there a few years after those massacres?

Following the referendum, Timor-Leste officially regained independence in 2002, and I started my fieldwork in 2005. I was a student and at the time I wasn’t quite able to recognize, as much as I do now, how much it was still a post-conflict country. There was destroyed infrastructure on the roads; you could see the impact of the Indonesian occupation everywhere.

I had no contacts there but I was very lucky. I sent emails to all contacts I could get and one of them put me in touch with someone working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Timor-Leste. An East Timorese woman and her family living in the capital city, Dili, took me in. So I could live with them. I didn’t want to go to a hotel and I wanted to live with a family, with people.

My first three months in Timor-Leste were spent in that home. But Dili was very hot, and I struggled with the heat. I tried to find a higher-up place. Having spent some time in Dili, I was also looking for places where I could then do long-term fieldwork.


Can you tell us about the village, where you did work in the mountain?

I carried out my research in Laclubar subdistrict, in a village called Funar, which was quite high up in the central mountains. It’s nice and cool there, and you can look down into the valleys and often see the clouds below you. Through complicated connections, someone again found a family for me to live with.

It’s an area where people speak Idate, an Austronesian language. Only some 10,000, maybe it’s 15,000 people now, speak that language. The entire village had been destroyed during the conflict between the UDT and Fretilin in 1975 and during the Indonesian occupation.

The entire village was forcibly moved and villagers had to live in Laclubar town during the occupation. The Indonesian military did this across Timor-Leste to control the resistance. They didn’t want people to join the resistance. So villagers were forcibly resettled during most of the Indonesian occupation.

But then in the early ’90s, some villagers from Funar wanted to go back to their ancestral land, where they could do agriculture. Going back was important for them. They slowly started moving back, and when Timor-Leste regained independence, many of them fully moved back.

When I arrived there, the process of moving back was still in the process. But the process of reconnecting with the land and with the places of origin, and rebuilding ancestral houses was a long one.


What was the main finding your book presented?

I went to Timor-Leste because my of theoretical interest in finding out how people talk about periods of violent conflict, and their memories of it.

I found it interesting that people in Funar hardly spoke about the Indonesian occupation. It took me a long time to find out that the village of Funar, where it is located today, was not actually where it was located before the Indonesian occupation. It is because people were emphasizing continuity with the past, that they did not talk much about the Indonesian occupation. They sought to emphasize continuity with a pre-Indonesian, and sometimes even a pre-colonial past. So they didn’t talk much about recent history. But they talked a lot about the importance of the land and the fertility of the land and reconnecting with the land.

The book was titled The Land of Gold because people often spoke about specific sacred sites as having a lot of gold. These were often sites that had some ancestral significance [in origin narratives]. It was perhaps a site where ancestors grew from the land or it was a place where a specific event had happened in the ancestral past. People would say there’s a lot of gold beneath these lands. It was another way of saying that it’s a very sacred and potent land. The importance of the ancestors and the importance of these sacred sites were what people emphasized in this post-conflict period.

My main argument is that people weren’t directly talking about what happened during the Indonesian occupation. But they were dealing with what was happening during that time precisely by reinvigorating these ancestral sites and connections. This was a way of dealing with all the changes that had happened, and all their traumatic experiences, by creating this continuity with this ancestral past.


What has been the most challenging during your research?

I think it’s hard to identify one specific aspect that’s been most difficult. But I think when I was doing my fieldwork, there were many practicalities that I found difficult such as living in an area without public transport and electricity. I think that was physically challenging in many ways.

So, when I was doing my fieldwork, I often tried to deny the differences between me and the people with whom I was living with. That was so partly because I wanted them to feel that they could have a good relationship with me. I tried to eat whatever food there was, and sleep wherever I could sleep. I tried not to have any expectations.

I didn’t know anything about their life. I was the one who was there to learn. So, I never wanted to complain about anything.

By doing that I sometimes also denied the differences that we had. I was privileged because for me living in poverty was temporary, and I had the possibility that I could go back home and continue my studies and have a totally different lifestyle. (Many of the people I lived with did not have that privilege).

When my mother saw the photos of the area where I was doing fieldwork, she would always say, “Oh, people are so incredibly poor.” I would ask her to “stop saying that. That’s not the most important thing. The important thing is the relationship I have with them.” I was annoyed at the comment because I felt that poverty was not the most important thing about people that I lived with and whom I cared a lot about.

But I think, retrospectively, I perhaps didn’t fully acknowledge some of the poverty and the problems of people there. I think dealing with that kind of tension between me being able to go there and being able to leave was emotionally the most challenging thing.


How has the socio-economic and also religious situation of people in Funar evolved since the beginning of your fieldwork up to today?

I haven’t been back there for quite some time. The last time I was back was in 2016. I would have liked to have gone last summer, but that wasn’t possible because of the pandemic. Every time I’ve gone back, I have seen a huge amount of investment in this rural area.

Most of the houses in the village where I did my fieldwork research in Funar were made from natural materials such as grass and wood. Nowadays, people have stone houses and there’s a sort of clear investment. They now have electricity, mobile phones, and internet connections. There has been quite a dramatic change and a lot of it has been enabled through the Petroleum Fund and massive state spending. Funar is much more connected now than it used to be.

There’s also, a religious change. People were nominally Catholic, and there was a lot of creative mixing of Catholicism and ancestral ideas during my fieldwork. But when I went back recently, my impression was that the influence of the Catholic Church had grown. When I was doing my fieldwork, only some people went to Mass on Sundays, many didn’t. That has changed in recent years and the influence of the Catholic Church has become stronger. It seems that would be an interesting research project to see exactly how things have changed.


How is your research impacting your own understanding of Catholicism?

I think that Catholicism in Timor-Leste is an interesting one, because there is so much active mixing and playful mixing with ancestral practices. If I think about how this experience changed my understanding of Catholicism, I guess that in some way I began to appreciate the animist potential of Catholic thought.

There is much potential in Catholicism and Catholic practice to be incorporated into existing ancestral practices. Some people in Timor-Leste think that tradition and the Church are two different things and that they need to be separate. But there are others who see this as a positive alliance between two powerful spheres.

The sort of Catholicism that I find most interesting is the one where there’s this playful interaction between these different spheres where you have a statue of the Virgin Mary put up at an ancestral site. And then these different entities co-exist — ancestral powers and Catholic sacred powers. They become mixed up in people’s understanding of these sites.

So, if anything, it has made me appreciate the potential of Catholicism to be creatively intermixed with existing ideas and beliefs, even thought, though it’s often denied officially.


Michel Chambon is a French theologian and cultural anthropologist who studies Christianity in the Chinese world. At the National University of Singapore, he coordinates ISAC, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics

With thanks to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News and Michel Chambon, where this article originally appeared.


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