October 2012


Doctrine divides, Action unites

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Julio Martins da Costa: ‘I Focused on the Bible and . . .
Didn’t Have to Compromise with Any Other Faith’

Bruce Van Voorhis

Julio Martins da Costa
Julio Martins da Costa

Asia’s newest country, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, or East Timor, endured decades of violence before its birth on May 20, 2002. After being a colony of Portugal for more than 400 years beginning in the 16th century, its earlier period of independence in November 1975 was short-lived, for a month later the Indonesian military invaded; and by July 1976, it was a province of Indonesia, sparking more than three decades of struggle to be free of its larger neighbor’s control. In spite of violence both before and after a referendum supervised by the United Nations on its future status as either remaining a province of Indonesia or becoming a new nation, the East Timorese people voted for their independence.

Julio Martins da Costa, the first person from East Timor to attend Interfaith Cooperation Forum’s (ICF) School of Peace (SOP) in Bangalore, India, has lived through most of his country’s violent history. Born in a rural village in Baucau District in 1985, Julio and his family assisted the guerrilla army by providing them with food in the late 1990s toward the end of the conflict. When the Indonesian army left the country, however, its militia in East Timor took revenge for the referendum’s outcome, and people in Julio’s village were killed. Fortunately, Julio and his family were not harmed.

Many people from his village who had fought for the Indonesian-backed militia though returned to his village after the fighting ended, he says. These particular militia members had destroyed a lot of homes, he says, but had not killed anyone, and the village leaders told them they could return. Presently, he adds, there have not been any problems. He explains that revenge is not part of the indigenous spirituality of his community, that a buffalo or other form of atonement is decided by the village leaders if a person commits an act that offends or harms another person.

Although Julio largely escaped the repression that characterized Indonesia’s rule of East Timor, he found himself in prison in 2007 in the country’s capital city of Dili after going there to study Portuguese as part of a plan of his faith community, the Protestant Church, to later go to Brazil to continue his language studies. Staying with a friend in a camp for internally displaced people, or IDPs, he became caught up in an internal struggle in the country that began a year earlier between members of the military as soldiers from the western part of the country claimed they faced discrimination within the ranks of the military by those from the East, who formed the majority of soldiers in the army. In reality, says Julio, this was a political conflict between President Xanana Gusmao and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri as the president wanted to replace the prime minister.

One day people from the West came to the camp as people from the East, like Julio, lived there. A stone-throwing incident initiated by those from the East ensued, resulting in the arrival of the police to stop the fighting. Julio and 50 other young men from the camp were invited to go to the national police station to make a statement. Several men were released after four days, but 44 men, including Julio, were taken to court to make a statement. Prior to their court appearance, the men made a joint statement claiming that they knew nothing about the violence. The judge eventually ruled, however, that they should spend 14 weeks in preventive detention to protect them, and thus, Julio found himself in prison between May and September of 2007.

Before going to India to take part in the 2012 SOP, Julio worked for the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace in Baucau Diocese as a group leader for a civic education program. Presently, local communities in East Timor are governed by a district administrator who is a civil servant from the national administration. His role in this project, Julio says, was to go to the villages in the district to discuss with the people about the formation of municipal governments, a change that the national government is promoting next year in Bacau and three other districts. The purpose of the program, he says, was to gauge people’s opinions, and they found that 80 percent of the people support it.

Julio adds that he also worked for his Protestant church as a volunteer, helping with their activities for young men and women in the Bacau and Lospalos Districts.

Coming to SOP though was a new experience for him, Julio recalls, as he had never traveled outside of his country, and he had never met people from other countries. He says that he has learned a great deal about the life and issues of people in other parts of Asia as well as North America and Europe from the other participants.

During the 14 weeks of SOP, however, one of the most influential impacts on him, Julio notes, is relating to people of other faiths and learning about their religious views.

“When I first came to SOP,” Julio says, “everyone was uncomfortable—a new language to speak every day, a new environment, new climate, new people from many different countries, faiths and cultures, etc.”

“In East Timor,” he continues, “I focused on the Bible, and the Bible has the truth. I didn’t have to compromise with any other faith. I always used to say bad things about my traditional faith [indigenous spirituality] in my country.”

“When I came to SOP, however, and learned about different faiths and perspectives, I realized there are similarities between Christianity and my traditional faith,” he explains. “Now I am confused. Now I’m starting to make inquiries about this conflict in my mind.”

“In the worship of the two faiths, the worship is different,” he adds. “In Christianity, the Bible says don’t worship any images. Thus, I want to study more about the different beliefs about worship.”

He learned a great deal about the newfound importance he attaches to respecting those who are different, he says, during a field visit to Hyderabad where the SOP participants met people from the city’s Hindu and Muslim communities in order to learn more about the conflict between them. During this visit, he recalls, people in both communities noted that there had been no conflict between them during the time of their ancestors. However, when their ancestors died, this respect changed. For example, the SOP participants were told that their food prohibitions were violated. Beef was brought to a Hindu temple, and pork was brought to a mosque. Both Hindus and Muslims believed it was people from the other community who did this provocative act. Members of both communities also believed, however, that this confrontational conduct was for political reasons as politicians who had lost previous elections sought to spark a conflict with the other community and create communal problems in the city in an effort to attract support for themselves in future elections.

According to elderly men and women in both communities, another culprit in the tension and animosity between Hindus and Muslims is globalization that the older people of the two communities believe has helped destroy their culture, which has led to a lack of respect for others who are different. Globalization, they note, brings change, and this change erodes their culture, which in the past had respected others who were different. Consequently, part of this change contributes to the attrition of this respect for communal differences.

Julio adds that his awareness was also expanded by another field visit that took the group of SOP participants to Kappal District in the state of Karnataka to meet the Bandavi girls, the daughters of Hindu temple prostitutes who are part of the devadasi system in India. He learned from this encounter, he notes, about the bonded labor of children and child marriage that are part of the devadasi system. This experience helped him to better understand their previous classroom discussions about others and their communities, he says.

Another important learning experience for him, he says, was presentations in the classroom about the conflict and violence that often accompany development. Again, what he acquired in the classroom was clarified by a third field visit to indigenous communities in the state of Kerala. Since he is from an indigenous community in East Timor, this visit was even more meaningful for him.

“On one hand, they said that development—roads, houses and a dam—was good for them,” Julio says, “but on the other hand, they said that development led to violence as their spiritual beliefs are rooted in nature, and the development destroyed the trees and rocks, etc., that are holy to them.”

“One of the things I learned at SOP,” he adds, “is that development can affect one’s culture.”

Upon his return to East Timor, Julio says he wants to conduct a seminar for the youth in his church to share with them about what he has learned at SOP. He also may have an opportunity to become a staff member of the YMCA in Dili, he says, and, if so, he would also like to use this new position as a platform to reach even more youth.

“I will also share what I’ve learned with others in my village,” he adds, “because there is a lot of conflict between traditional faith and Christianity in their way of understanding and thinking.”

“When I was in East Timor, I worked for the church and only thought about people from my Protestant faith,” Julio explains. “Now, after SOP, I think that I need to work for other people in East Timor as well as people facing issues elsewhere in Asia and the world.”