By Pat Walsh
The World Council of Churches wound up its mammoth seventh assembly in Canberra on February 20 without discussing or taking a position on East Timor.
The WCC's silence on the issue, after its loud and commendable protests on the plight of Australian Aborigines, has distressed East Timorese, who expected East Timor to fare better than at previous WCC assemblies because Australia was the venue and because strong analogies could be made between East Timor and the dominant issue at the assembly, the Gulf crisis.
The WCC has taken a pragmatic line on East Timor, not unlike that of the Australian government. It felt bound to condemn the Indonesian invasion in 1975, which occurred as the fifth WCC assembly was taking place in Nairobi. Since then, it has placed a higher priority on good relations with the influential Indonesian Council of Churches (PGI) and, though well informed on the magnitude of the injustices in East Timor, has remained inactive.
This has been a source of acute embarrassment to many in the WCC. However, each time they have moved to address the question, they have been outmanoeuvred by Indonesia. This latest assembly shows how it is done.
Prior to the assembly, a WCC delegation of four was selected to visit East Timor en route to Canberra to assess the situation and report. Only one made it. Two were unable because of the Gulf War, and a third, a Portuguese bishop, considered the key delegate, was in effect denied a visa. Initially told he would have to apply for a visa in Madrid because Portugal has no diplomatic relations with Indonesia, he was then told on the eve of the visit that the visa would have to be collected in Singapore, by which time it was too late.
The one-person delegation was accompanied by Indonesian government and church officials and had no opportunity to see the reality. He emerged saying he had been misled by foreign press reports on the situation. "WCC envoy hails East Timor's progress", reported the Jakarta Post.
A week later, the Indonesian-appointed governor told the Indonesian parliament that repression was provoking further discontent in the turbulent territory!
A large Indonesian delegation, which included an East Timorese Protestant pastor, attended the assembly. According to observers, officials from the Indonesian embassy in Canberra worked closely with them and employed the intimidatory tactic of photographing Pacific delegates who expressed concern over East Timor.
This was supplemented by a more "Christian" tactic in which the PGI group took "brother" Pacific islander aside to advise them that by raising the issue they could create problems for the PGI with the Indonesian government.
Attempts to have East Timor mentioned in assembly documents even in passing were abandoned after objections from the Indonesian
In a draft document entitled, ironically, "Spirit of truth, set us free", reference was made to "struggles for self-determination in Kampuchea and East Timor". Taiwan was substituted for East Timor in the final text.
Another document, the "Report of the public issues committee", stated in its draft "its support for greater autonomy and independence for those Pacific island people still under colonial domination" and referred specifically to East Timor, West Papua and Kanaky. All these references were dropped after the Indonesian delegation objected to the inclusion of East Timor and West Papua.
It cannot be denied that the Indonesian church's role complicates matters for the WCC. It is also true, however, that its political blackmail has succeeded on this occasion and badly compromised the WCC's self-proclaimed prophetic or "conscience" role.