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East Timor's Muslims bemoan new hostility

International Herald Tribune - June 8, 2000

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Dili – Lured by the opportunity to make it big in the coffee trading business, Abdul Halim moved to this predominantly Roman Catholic territory in 1996 from his largely Islamic hometown on Sumatra island, settling in a small community near the Dili airport filled with fellow Muslim migrants from other parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

At the time, going from the religious majority to the minority did not concern Mr. Halim and his neighbors. The Indonesian government, which ruled East Timor with a stiff military fist, encouraged Muslims to move to the territory under a policy aimed at diluting the strength of independence-minded Timorese.

But now that East Timor is no longer part of Indonesia, having voted for independence in a referendum sponsored by the United Nations last summer, the Muslim minority has found the welcome mat yanked away.

"When we go to the market, the Timorese tell us we are not wanted here," said Mr. Halim, 51. "They say, 'Go back.' They call us troublemakers even though we have caused no trouble here."

Many Muslim families in Mr. Halim's neighborhood escaped the wave of violence that erupted after the independence vote by taking sanctuary in the nearby An-Nur Mosque. They have been unable to return home because their houses have been occupied by Timorese squatters.

"We have tried to go back, but when we arrive the people there tell us we cannot have our homes back because we are not Timorese," said Jamal Chaniago, a leader of the mosque.

The intimidation is not just verbal. The An-Nur Mosque, which has been transformed into a squalid encampment of 265 people, many of them families with young children, is regularly pelted with stones thrown by young Timorese Catholics, according to Islamic leaders and UN officials.

The persecution of East Timor's Muslim minority is emerging as a key test of religious and political tolerance in the new nation, raising fears that this battle-scarred territory could see a wave of violence spawned by the Timorese, who were the last round's victims, against Muslims, ethnic Chinese businessmen and others who are believed to have initially opposed independence.

UN officials who govern the country have condemned the intimidation and pledged that residents before the vote are free to live there now. The UN also has beefed up security at the mosque compound.

Several key Timorese officials, including an independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Jose Ramos-Horta, have said that non-Timorese should be allowed to return, but they differ on how that process should take place, voicing fears that unchecked immigration could let Indonesians and other foreigners snatch economic opportunities from the impoverished Timorese.

"Indonesian business people have come back and are injecting enormous amounts of money into the economy," said Joao Carrascalo, a vice president of the National Council of Timorese Resistance, the umbrella independence group. "They have become provocateurs. They are doing it to destabilize the situation."

Mr. Carrascalo said people who do not have a family connection to Timor, even those who lived in the territory before, should be treated as new migrants and subjected to "the proper scrutiny" before residency permits are granted.

The UN's human-rights chief in East Timor, Sidney Jones, said the animosity toward Muslims, Chinese and others was motivated more by political differences than religious ones. "What you're really seeing is suspicion of people who are still perceived as Indonesian nationals," she said.

Several of the mosque dwellers privately say they would have preferred that Timor remain part of Indonesia, but they insist they did not take part in the violence or support the militias that caused it. Because they were not born in Timor, they were not allowed to vote.

Despite the 24-hour presence of armed UN peacekeepers at the mosque compound, the level of fear is still high among those inside. They rarely leave the area during the day and never at night, Mr. Chaniago said. Many of the men are unemployed, he said, because the Timorese will not hire them.

The tension highlights the steep challenges facing the UN as it also tries to integrate in the new nation the tens of thousands of people, most of them Catholic and native-born Timorese, who voted for the territory to remain a part of Indonesia. With UN encouragement, those people have been slowly returning to East Timor from refugee camps in western Timor. In some cases, the repatriation has proceeded smoothly, but in others, the returnees have been threatened and beaten up by independence supporters.