Timor-Leste (East Timor)

Last Updated 7 October 2021

Timor-Leste is a democratic sovereign state in southeast Asia with a population of approximately 1.1 million, of which it is estimated that 97.6% are Catholic (Catholicism was introduced to the country a result of Portuguese colonisation), 1% are Protestant and 0.2% are Muslim. For many East Timorese, animistic traditions coexist with Catholic belief.1https://www.learnreligions.com/east-timor-religion-4766639 Portugal maintained control over Timor-Leste until 1975; soon after its withdrawal, Indonesia invaded and annexed the country.

Countless well-documented human rights abuses were committed during the Indonesian military occupation. Although the 1999 referendum granted Timor-Leste its independence, Indonesia’s violent withdrawal destroyed 80% of the country’s infrastructure, and 1,400 Timorese were killed by anti-independence militia, with nearly 75% of the population displaced.2https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/timor-leste/session_26_-_november_2016/cs_upr26_tls_e_main.pdf During the Indonesian occupation, atheism was not recognized and East Timorese had to declare themselves adherent to one of 5 recognized religions —Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Most opted for Catholicism.3https://repositorio.ucp.pt/bitstream/10400.14/19900/1/Thesis_frCancio.pdf

The United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) acted as de facto administrator for three years after Indonesia’s withdrawal. Its mandate ended in 2002 with the country’s first presidential elections and the adoption of a new Constitution.4https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Framing%20the%20State/Chapter9_Framing.pdf

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The Constitution and other laws and policies protect freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as freedom of expression, assembly and association. By law, the country is secular. Although there is therefore no official state religion, the Roman Catholic Church remains prominent in the political life of the country. The preamble to the Constitution recognizes the role of the Catholic Church in “taking on the suffering of all the People with dignity, placing itself [at] their side in the defense of their most elementary rights.”5https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/East_Timor_2002.pdf?lang=en

The preamble to the Constitution affirms the determination to “fight all forms of […] religious domination and segregation.” Section 12(1) claims that “the state shall recognise and respect the different religious denominations, which are free in their organization and in the exercise of their own activities”.

Catholic privilege and religious discrimination

A concordat signed in 2015 with the Holy See grants the Catholic Church certain privileges, including providing “spiritual assistance in prisons, hospitals, clinics and orphanages, performing works of charity, establishing schools at every level and assisting Catholic parents in the education of their children in their own faith.”6https://www.ucanews.com/news/vatican-timor-leste-sign-bilateral-agreement/74081

As part of the concordat arrangement, the Office of the Prime Minister provides a budget allocation of five million USD to the Catholic Episcopal Conference for distribution among the country’s three Catholic dioceses. A separate government fund is also available for civil society organizations, to which religious and belief groups (including the Catholic Church) are able to apply on an annual basis.7https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/240282-TIMOR-LESTE-2020-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf

Education and children’s rights

Religious education has been an elective subject in state schools since 2005. Prior to that, it was a compulsory class in the core curriculum. The government’s decision to end compulsory religious education was met with mass protests, organized by the Catholic Church leaders.8https://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1349881.htm

According to the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom by the US State Department:

“While most schools are public, the Catholic Church also operates private schools, which may be attended by Catholic and non-Catholic students. Religious studies is mandatory in private Catholic schools.”9https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/timor-leste/

Family, community and society

Whilst Minority religious groups have generally reported religious tolerance in the country, according to the 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom by the US State Department, “some minority groups said strong societal pressure to remain in the Catholic Church, particularly from family or community members, continued.”10https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/timor-leste/

Sexual and reproductive health and rights

The Timorese Catholic Church intervenes in reproductive health and rights decision-making at all levels of society, from influencing policy by the Ministry of Health to intervening in the reproductive decisions made by individuals.11https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267739702_The_Catholic_Church_and_reproductive_health_and_rights_in_Timor-Leste_contestation_negotiation_and_cooperation In doing so it contributes to significant social stigma around contraception and sexual health. Reproductive health clinics set up by the Church encourage only ‘natural’ forms of contraception, which are primarily abstinence based.12https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267739702_The_Catholic_Church_and_reproductive_health_and_rights_in_Timor-Leste_contestation_negotiation_and_cooperation

The Church opposes any relaxation of the country’s exceptionally restrictive abortion law, which imposes a ban on abortion in almost all cases apart from those where a woman’s life is endangered (and in such cases, consent from three physicians is still required).13https://www.refworld.org/docid/49c370921e.html All other abortions are criminalized under the Penal Code (Article 141). A person who performs an illegal abortion, as well as the pregnant individual, can face up to three years of imprisonment for breach of this provision.14https://antislaverylaw.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Timor-Leste-Penal-Code.pdf

Harmful traditional practices

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Descrimination against Women reports that certain traditional customs, such as the payment of bride-price (barlake) by husbands to the families of their wives, child and/or forced marriage and polygamy, are still prevalent in Timor-Leste.15CEDAW/C/TLS/CO/2-3

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Constitution. In 2018, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) noted the country’s positive progress on media development.16https://www.ifj.org/fr/salle-de-presse/nouvelles/detail/category/press-releases/article/underneath-the-autocrats-first-ifj-south-east-asia-media-report-launched.html

However, there have been some attempts to curtail freedom and independence of the media. In 2020, Reporters Without Borders reported that journalists “came under attack from the Catholic clergy, which is very powerful in Timor-Leste. A bishop inveighed against two media outlets that published an investigative article about a US priest accused of a sexual attack on a minor.”17https://rsf.org/en/timor-leste Also in 2020, a proposed anti-defamation law purported to criminalize statements offending the “honour, good name and reputation” of any current or previous member of government, or member of the Church, with up to three years in prison. Civil society resistance resulted in the proposal being shelved; however, with no guarantee that the bill will not return in future.18https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/category/press-releases/article/timor-leste-proposed-defamation-law-petitioned-by-media-rights-groups.html

Freedoms of association and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed and NGOs can generally operate without interference. However, a 2004 law regulates political gatherings and prohibits demonstrations aimed at “questioning constitutional order” or disparaging the reputations of the head of state and other government officials. The law requires that demonstrations and public protests be authorized in advance.19https://freedomhouse.org/country/timor-leste/freedom-world/2020


1 https://www.learnreligions.com/east-timor-religion-4766639
2 https://www.upr-info.org/sites/default/files/document/timor-leste/session_26_-_november_2016/cs_upr26_tls_e_main.pdf
3 https://repositorio.ucp.pt/bitstream/10400.14/19900/1/Thesis_frCancio.pdf
4 https://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/Framing%20the%20State/Chapter9_Framing.pdf
5 https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/East_Timor_2002.pdf?lang=en
6 https://www.ucanews.com/news/vatican-timor-leste-sign-bilateral-agreement/74081
7 https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/240282-TIMOR-LESTE-2020-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
8 https://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1349881.htm
9, 10 https://www.state.gov/reports/2020-report-on-international-religious-freedom/timor-leste/
11, 12 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267739702_The_Catholic_Church_and_reproductive_health_and_rights_in_Timor-Leste_contestation_negotiation_and_cooperation
13 https://www.refworld.org/docid/49c370921e.html
14 https://antislaverylaw.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Timor-Leste-Penal-Code.pdf
16 https://www.ifj.org/fr/salle-de-presse/nouvelles/detail/category/press-releases/article/underneath-the-autocrats-first-ifj-south-east-asia-media-report-launched.html
17 https://rsf.org/en/timor-leste
18 https://www.ifj.org/media-centre/news/detail/category/press-releases/article/timor-leste-proposed-defamation-law-petitioned-by-media-rights-groups.html
19 https://freedomhouse.org/country/timor-leste/freedom-world/2020

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