East Timor Religion, a Catholic Community in Southeast Asia

East Timorese Christians carry crucifixe
East Timorese Christians carry crucifixes during a procession in Dili to mark Palm Sunday on March 16, 2008. About 97% of East Timor's 800,000 people are Roman Catholic. It also has Muslim and Protestant minororities.

MARIO JONNY DOS SANTOS / Getty Images

The main East Timor religion is Roman Catholicism, accounting for more than 97.6% of the population. Even though the country was a province of Indonesia—a majority Muslim country—for nearly 30 years, less than 1% of the population is Muslim.

Key Takeaways: East Timor Religion

  • The main religion in East Timor is Roman Catholicism (97.6% of the population). 
  • Other religions practiced in the country: Protestant groups, including Assemblies of God, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist, and Jehovah’s Witness (1.96% of the population); Muslim (0.2%); and other religions (0.2%).
  • Catholicism became a central part of Timorese culture during the Indonesian occupation, between 1975 and 2002. 

Though Catholicism is the main religion of East Timor, the state does not claim an official religion, and the constitution protects the right of religious freedom. In addition, religious education in public schools is compulsory, though it does include teachings on Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.

Catholicism in East Timor 

As a result of 400 years of Portuguese rule, the majority of the population of East Timor is Roman Catholic. The Portuguese arrived in East Timor while searching for spices during the 16th century, and they used the colony as a detention facility for political criminals. While the surrounding islands, which would later become Indonesia, were under Dutch control, Portugal managed to retain East Timor, half of the island of Timor. Portuguese merchants brought Jesuit priests to East Timor, introducing Catholicism for the first time.

During the colonial era, the Church was the principal protector of indigenous people against the abuses of the colonizers. The Church also took on the responsibility of educating the people, a trend that has carried into modernity. Most contemporary political leaders in East Timor were educated in Jesuit institutions.

The Pope Meets with East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta
Pope Benedict XVI meets with East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta at his private library, January 21, 2008 in Vatican City.  Alessia Giuliani-Vatican Pool / Getty Images

Portugal maintained control over the country until 1975, when it declared independence. The victory was short-lived, however, and Indonesia invaded and claimed the country nine days after declaring independence. During the Indonesian occupation, Catholicism became a central part of Timorese culture and identity. The number of baptized Catholics tripled during this time, from 30% in 1975 to more than 90% in the 1990s.

After decades of violent conflict, Indonesia relinquished its claim, and in 2002, East Timor became the first sovereign nation of the 21st century and the second Catholic-majority country in Southeast Asia, following the Philippines.

Although most Timorese are Catholics, most practice the religion in conjunction with animist traditions and rituals.

Protestantism and Islam in East Timor

Only about 1.96% of the population of East Timor is Protestant. The largest Protestant group in East Timor is Assemblies of God, though several Protestant religious groups are present in the country. These groups include Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Seventh-day Adventist, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Devotees of a minority Muslim community East Timor
Devotees of a minority Muslim community leave a mosque after offering a special morning prayer to kick off their Eid al-Fitr festival in Dili, 24 October 2006. CANDIDO ALVES / Getty Images

The country is also home to a small population of Muslims, most of whom are Sunni. Notably, the first prime minister of East Timor, Mari Alkatiri, was a Muslim.

The number of Protestants and Muslims in East Timor decreased by more than half during the Indonesian occupation, as most members of the two religious groups in the country supported Indonesian governance. After East Timor became independent, many Protestants and Muslims remained in West Timor as Indonesian citizens.

Animism in East Timor

Indigenous and pre-colonial religious practices in East Timor were polytheistic and animist, emphasizing the importance of spirits and a connection with nature. For example, crocodiles are symbolic and revered by the Timorese because the island is thought to have been created by a “Grandfather Crocodile”. According to legend, a young boy rescued a baby crocodile and the two traveled across the world together. When the crocodile died, its body became the island of Timor. Some natural spaces and geographical landmarks are considered lulik, or sacred, and offerings are frequently made to ancestors.

For most Timorese, these animistic traditions coexist with Catholicism, so the population does not identify explicitly as animist.

Sources

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Timor-Leste. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019. 
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: East Timor. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.
  • Hodge, Joel. “The Catholic Church in Timor-Leste and the Indonesian Occupation.” South East Asia Research, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 151–170.
  • Molnar, Andrea Katalin. Timor Leste: Politics, History, and Culture. Routledge, 2012.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.