Evangelical Christians from Indonesia and other countries have intensified efforts to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of thousands of East Timorese people settling into refugee camps at the western end of the Indonesian island.
Despite limited funds and inadequate staffing, believers are sharing the gospel with refugees from ethnic people groups that previously have had little or no access to the message.
An estimated 300,000 people have fled into the Indonesian-held western half of the island of Timor since East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in August. The vote sparked violent reactions in the already tumultuous region, with hundreds of people in East Timor believed to have been killed by militias loyal to the Indonesian government in Jakarta.
Baptist relief efforts began as members of Kupang Baptist Church in West Timor ministered to 14 Baptist families from Dili, East Timor, who had fled to Kupang. As the refugee numbers increased, a team of 11 young adults from a Baptist student group in Jakarta joined the church in Kupang to help care for the refugees, who were being housed at the Noelbaki refugee camp outside the city.
A Baptist representative involved in the relief efforts said the 515 people (105 families) the church is now caring for had fled their village near Dili, leaving their homes, land and most of their belongings. Their village leader is a member of Dili Baptist Church.
He added that the size of the camps has continued to increase because refugees are not quickly returning to East Timor, mainly due to misinformation and intimidation tactics being used by anti-independence elements in Timor.
"Opportunities for ministry are increasing and we are moving the ministry into a longer-term project, even though we have neither the funds nor adequate personnel," said the representative. "The project is functioning by faith on gifts from Indonesian Baptist Churches, [international] churches in Indonesia, individuals and a church in Australia."
Workers saw an immediate need to begin ministering to the physical, spiritual and social needs of the refugees, beginning with the target group of 105 families from Dili, but open to any who want to attend.
"We have distributed milk and basic food items, clothing and school books and have three nurses and a doctor working in the camp clinic," he said. "We are holding Bible lessons for the children, which have opened the door for adult Bible studies and personal witnessing."
Working with Campus Crusade for Christ, the Jesus film has been shown several times in the camps, he added. However, "we have only enough personnel to continue what we have been doing into early December. We desperately need funds and more people to continue."
Although the majority of East Timor claims to be Catholic and the West Timorese claim to be Protestant, the Timorese are animistic at heart, said a Southern Baptist worker.
"The refugees from East Timor come from 17 people groups that are less than 2 percent evangelical," he said. "Our goal is to establish a church-planting movement among the refugees who come from these different unreached people groups."
According to reports, the Noelbaki camp—with approximately 13,000 inhabitants—and a second camp nearby, Tuapukan, housing 30,000 refugees—do not meet even the basic needs of the refugees.
The Baptist response teams also have installed a pump on one well at the Tuapukan camp and a water storage tank. In addition, 15 water purifiers donated from individuals in the United States have been installed in both camps to provide clean drinking water.
"Noelbaki is a series of barracks built with tin roofs, plywood dividers and no floors, stretching several kilometers," said the Baptist representative. "Each barrack is divided into 16 sections of 2.5 square meters. Families get one or two sections, depending on the size of the family. The government-built barracks cannot hold all the refugees, so a thousand refugees have built shelters of palm leaves."
Conditions in the camp are deplorable, relief workers said. Noelbaki camp, located on a seasonal rice field, flooded when the first early rainstorm of the season hit in October, spreading human waste throughout the camp. Because of the condition of the barracks, refugees were forced to sleep in the mud.
"Our doctor and nurses have begun to circulate through the camp doctoring the sick," said a Baptist worker. "Even still, the poor living conditions in the Tuapukan camp are taking the lives of four to 11 children every day."
Contributions toward the relief efforts in West Timor can be sent to the International Mission Board, Hunger and Relief Fund—Timor Relief, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230.
Rankin is an overseas correspondent covering Asia for the International Mission Board.
Copyright © 1999 Baptist Press.
See our earlier story, "Church Aids Refugees Despite Violence" (Oct. 25, 1999)
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