Pope Francis’s arrival Thursday in the Philippines, marking his first visit to Asia’s largest majority-Catholic nation, seemed an obvious stop for a pontiff seeking to embrace worshippers far flung from the Vatican. Yet another Asian nation, tiny East Timor, boasts an even higher per capita Catholic population — but hasn’t been blessed with a papal trip in a quarter-century.
Given its small size, it’s in some ways understandable that the pope is skipping East Timor on his Asia tour, his second since he was installed in March 2013. Other Asian countries the pope hasn’t visited — China, Vietnam, India — have larger Catholic populations.
But with its roots as a Portuguese colony, East Timor beats even the Philippines in the proportion of its population that’s Catholic — around 90 percent, compared with the Philippines’ 80 percent. That means East Timor holds nearly 1 percent of the world’s total 1.2 billion Catholics — nearly as many as Sri Lanka, the other stop on the pope’s current trip.
East Timor is also long overdue for a papal visit, and popes don’t come to Asia often. Pope Benedict XVI made no visits to the continent outside of the Middle East, though Pope Francis, who visited South Korea last August, seems to be trying to make up for Asia’s papal dry spell.
His current trip is the fourth time a pope has visited Sri Lanka and the Philippines. The two nations welcomed Pope Paul VI on a 1971 trip during which he also visited Hong Kong, Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia — though not the part of Indonesian-controlled territory that would become East Timor.
Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines and Sri Lanka twice, in 1981 and 1995. He also traveled to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan — all before East Timor gained its independence in 2002 after a quarter-century of brutal Indonesian occupation.
East Timor’s one papal visit came in 1989, when John Paul, who visited Jakarta, Indonesia, on the same trip, became not just the first pope but also the first world leader to set foot in the then-occupied territory. He used his visit to urge for reconciliation on the site of alleged mass killings during the 1970s by Indonesian troops suppressing the Timorese independence movement. Despite his message of peace, the trip set off a tussle between anti-government demonstrators and police, though the pope himself wasn’t threatened.
In 2008, the East Timorese government built a 6-meter-high statue of John Paul on the site of his 1989 message. The country’s then president, Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão, a Catholic, said the pope’s visit nearly 20 years earlier “helped to break down the wall of silence and indifference of the international community.”
A papal visit could serve a similar role today. Memories of pro-Indonesian violence are still fresh, but East Timor largely goes ignored in its struggle to find stability as a new, small, and impoverished country. Pope Francis sought a similar role this week both in Sri Lanka, where he preached reconciliation to heal the nation’s deep civil war wounds, and in the Philippines, where he said his visit would focus on poverty — particularly among those still suffering from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.
As the first non-European pope in more than a millennium, Francis is making an effort to pay more attention to worshippers who live far from the Vatican. An Indonesian archbishop has invited him to visit Indonesia next year, and Francis is reportedly considering a trip to Japan. East Timor would be but a short trip from either destination.
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