MALIANA, EAST TIMOR // A few years ago, Domingos Pereira and his wife did something dangerous: they quit the Catholic Church. The path that led them to that decision started in 2004 when a handful of Jehovah's Witness missionaries showed up in their village near the Indonesian border. Every week, the missionaries held services in their homes and by 2006 they had converted five families, among them the Pereiras.
It was five families too many for the Catholic Church, which claims near total dominance in this tiny Asian country. Nuns drove to the Pereira home and accused the family of selling their faith for cash. Mr Pereira protested. He said he was given only a Bible, which he and his wife read. Mr Pereira said the nuns were furious. "They told us: 'You can't study the Bible. If you read the Bible every day, you'll go crazy'," he said. "They said the Bible was for the catechist, the sisters, the priest and that's it. They said it wasn't for everyone."
In Aug 2006, the local catechist told the townspeople to throw the missionaries out and refuse to rent their homes to them in the future. The missionaries did leave - they went a dozen kilometres up the road to Maliana. Five hours from the capital, Maliana is one of the most remote cities in East Timor. Here, the church, overseen by a local priest who refused to be interviewed, is the highest authority, superseding even the police.
The Pereiras say they have faced Church torment as well as abuse from their neighbours. Their story is not unique. Every member of an evangelical religion reported similar visits from nuns, along with forced evictions, assaults, death threats and occasional beatings. The police, who are also Catholic, have refused to investigate. The Jehovah's Witnesses lasted another two years in Maliana. On a Saturday morning last month, a group of about 20 people surrounded their home and told them to leave. The group was led by Anise Barreto, a 54-year-old grandmother and a self-proclaimed disciple of the Church.
"We're Catholic," she said. "We have been Catholic since birth and we don't want any other religion here." Ms Barreto said the priest told her that, as a Catholic community, they could not accept any other religions in their neighbourhood. Ms Barreto and other Catholics who helped drive out the evangelists claim the Jehovah's Witnesses were giving out money in exchange for conversions, but could not say how much because no Catholic interviewed had attended a Witness service.
"If we went in there all our neighbours would talk about us and later they'd come and attack us," one neighbour said. Mr Pereira said rumours were rampant. "People believe the foreigners gave us money so we would join them," he said. "Because we were no longer Catholic, people would ask why we'd left the Church. They couldn't understand it. They assumed we were given money." Maliana was not always so intolerant. During the 24-year Indonesian occupation, the town boasted a Protestant church, a Buddhist temple, a Catholic church and a mosque. When the Indonesians left in 1999, they took with them the Buddhists, Protestants and most of the Muslims.
Many Timorese say the Church helped them throughout the bloody struggle against Indonesia, and, they say, without the Church, East Timor would not be independent. To some, questioning the Church is heretical and traitorous. But even so, the Church is being questioned, and not just by the Jehovah's Witnesses. Natalia Duarte left the Church last year to be a Seventh Day Adventist. She left in the most dramatic way. One night, when she thought most of her neighbours were asleep, she grabbed her wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, the most sacred Catholic thing in a Timorese home, took it outside and set fire to it.
A few months ago the priest and others asked her why she had changed religions. They asked about the statue. "They said, 'Give us back our statue.' I said, 'It's my right to do what I want with it'," she said. "They knew what I did with it." Ms Duarte is the only Seventh Day Adventist in town. Her husband is a Catholic as are her two children. They go to church without her. To some she is evil. Carlito Guterres, a middle-aged father of four, assaulted her on the town's main street in daylight. He said he would do it again. "She took out her Bible and she started to quote from it. I slapped it out of her hands and then I slapped her in the face," he said.
Mr Pereira said he and his wife used to go door-to-door, as the Jehovah's Witnesses taught him. Some people were willing to listen, but everyone was scared, he said. More than once he and his wife were chased away with sticks and curses. The district's acting police commander said his officers did not want to get involved in religious affairs, so they did not step in when women were assaulted or people driven from their home. Even the UN police who are training the local police do not investigate claims linked to religious splits.
Klefer Belo, a Brazilian pastor with Sacred Vision, an international evangelical group, moved to Maliana a year ago with his wife hoping to build the first evangelical church. The couple lasted two days before they were driven out by a group of Catholics. Some youth have threatened to torch any church he builds. "Sometimes we're scared," Mr Belo said. "But we believe God is with us and he will never abandon us."
* The National