Dylan Amirio, Dili, Timor Leste – Timor Leste is probably not on the average list when it comes to destinations for spiritual tourism, or even tourism in general.
Most people, particularly Indonesians, view Timor Leste only as that little country that struggled and endured the brutal and murderous 30-plus year occupation by Indonesia's Soeharto regime.
Timor Leste separated from Indonesia in 1999 and became a new country in 2002. Interestingly, Dili, the capital, emanates a strong aura that radiates the population's spirituality to visitors.
It seems that the people of Dili seek refuge in their faith to survive amid difficult conditions in a relatively young country with an underdeveloped economy and infrastructure.
Timor Leste is Southeast Asia's second largest Roman Catholic country after the Philippines. Ninety-six percent of the country's 1.2 million people adhere to that faith, with about 60 percent of the youth considered devout followers.
Their faith is overtly shown through the numerous shrines to Mary gracing stores and the airport, as well as the Jesus Christ murals on shacks and in streets.
In the Roman Catholic world, Timor Leste has an important significance. It has been referred to as "the beginning" due to its position as the first Roman Catholic country in the world to see the sun rise each morning.
Timorese tour guide and devout Catholic, Platao Lebre, explained that Roman Catholicism started in an odd way in Timor Leste.
"A lot of Catholics here formerly held traditional, animistic beliefs. But during the Indonesian occupation, the government required every citizen to classify themselves as adherents of one of six specific religions. Most went with Catholicism because of the influence of the Portuguese heritage," he said.
Despite the strong Roman Catholic presence, traditional beliefs are still widely held and ritual activities are still practiced in some areas of Timor Leste, particularly in the most remote areas.
Local religious rituals usually include animal blood sacrifices to give thanks for God's blessings. Every Nov. 1, the capital is left empty as the people visit their hometowns and scatter flowers on their ancestors' graves in a Timorese tradition.
Apart from Timorese traditional rituals, the Catholic influence remains strong in the capital with the ubiquity of its religious symbols.
At every tallest peak, a cross or some sort of Catholic symbol is usually placed as the people believe that the highest peak is where God belongs.
Two of Dili's most prominent peaks have been graced by massive monuments that represent the strong Catholic presence in the city.
One of these is the statue of Pope John Paul II. The pope visited Timor Leste in 1989 and his visit was seen by many Timorese as a catalyst toward their independence. The visit was so profound that, in 2008, the country decided to erect a statue commemorating his visit.
It is a symbol of gratitude toward the world's highest Catholic figure as, at that time, he was the only world leader to visit the country in the midst of its troubles with Indonesia.
The statue stands above Dili's Tasitolu area, in the city's west, overlooking the cliffs and a gentle blue sea. The pope's statue faces the direction of the rising sun, signifying Timor Leste's position as "the beginning".
Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, a more familiar figure stands tall atop one of Dili's highest points, gracefully opening his arms to bless those below.
Probably the city's most notable landmark, and having the greatest potential to become the city's symbol, Cristo Rei of Dili (Christ the King of Dili), is a massive statue of Jesus Christ that recalls Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer.
Visitors need to climb 505 steps to reach the 29.5-meter tall statue at the top of the Fatucama peninsula. During the climb, visitors pass several bronze carvings narrating the story of the death of Jesus Christ in sequence: from Pilate's death sentence to when he is helped by Simon when he falls and then to his death on the cross.
At the peak, visitors are greeted by the giant Cristo Rei, which is built standing atop a globe of the world, overlooking Dili's mountains and sea.
Created by sculptor Mochammad Syaililah, the statue was a gift from former Indonesian president Soeharto in 1996 to celebrate the region's integration into Indonesia as the country's 27th province.
Jesus' eyes deliberately point in Jakarta's direction, making Soeharto's point very clear that East Timor's allegiance was to Indonesia alone.
While the old man's intention were certainly proven wrong six years later, the statue stands tall and remains one of the most visited tourist attractions in Dili, offering a spectacular view of the coast.
Despite the political controversy associated with it, many people believe that the monument is a welcome gesture.
"It is an appreciative feat for a Muslim sculptor to create an incredible and committed likeness of Jesus Christ. The statue may still have its political controversies, but as a Catholic, this is a wonderful gesture," Platao said, smiling as he gazed up toward the giant Christ.
"Yes, Timor Leste is poor but we feel happy nonetheless. Why? Because we have earned the greatest riches of them all, and that's our freedom and our faith," he declared.