FROM THE PLACE OF THE DEAD

The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo

Of East Timor

By Arnold S. Kohen

St. Martin's. 331 pp. $27.95

Reviewed by Colman McCarthy

Few biographies are more difficult to pull off than those about people of unblemished character and morally driven religious fervor. Goodness -- a lifetime of it -- can be made dull too easily. Few writers have the biographical and literary skills to chronicle the deeds and thoughts of an honorable and kind person in a worthy piece of writing.

Arnold S. Kohen is among those few. A former investigative reporter for NBC News, he has written a life of Bishop Carlos Belo that is factually sound, carefully researched and anything but dull. It is also essential. A Nobel Peace Prize co-winner in 1996, Belo of East Timor, an Indonesian territory since 1975, stands as a ranking leader in the usually marginalized field of international human rights. The bishop, a former gardener and buffalo herder who grew up fatherless, is a risk-taker whose belief in the power of nonviolence places him in the company of such other Catholic pacifist Nobel laureates as Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina and Carl von Ossietzky of Germany. It aligns him also with fellow peace-building bishops: Samuel Ruiz Garcia of Chiapas, Mexico, Helder Camara of Brazil and the martyred Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

Considering the violent and pauperized society in which he lives, Belos could well have shared the fate of the slain Romero. As recently as April, he was condemning the massacre of some 25 East Timorese villagers. Western media mostly consign such stories to the "In Brief" world news round-up page, if that. Which is another reason to admire Kohen's toil. He went to remote East Timor -- an island due south of the Philippines and north of Australia -- to find that he had the beat almost to himself. Kohen met Belo in 1993, and tailed him in East Timor and abroad during the following four years. The result is both a spiritual and a political biography, an account of a churchman defying madmen.

In 1976, the dictator Gen. Suharto, who seized power a decade before in Indonesia, began overseeing the systematic slaughter of people in occupied East Timor. His military's blood-soaked invasion of East Timor -- 90 percent of the weapons were U.S.-supplied, according to the State Department -- left resisters with no other ally than the Catholic church. "Until the late 1980s," Kohen writes, "East Timor was all but cut off from the outside world, and the military could behave as it chose."

In scores of interviews, Kohen discovered the political context in which Belo worked. "East Timor had become a nation of orphans and widows. Almost everyone had lost a close relative or friend. Whole villages had been wiped out. For the Timorese people, the scale of the tragedy was almost beyond comprehension." For the rest of the world, the tragedy was mostly beyond concern. Suharto was a major U.S. weapons client who welcomed Western multinationals and let them have their rapacious way with Indonesia's resources. Kohen cites estimates that out of a population of fewer than 700,000, more than 200,000 East Timorese died as a result of the Suharto assault between 1975 and 1979.

During those years, Carlos Belo trained for the priesthood. A member of the Salesian order, he was ordained in 1980 and named a bishop in 1988. Kohen offers evidence that the Catholic Church in East Timor -- strongly Romanized by Portuguese missionaries centuries before -- received only tepid support from the Vatican of Pope John Paul II. In the mid-1980s when Belo began speaking out on human rights and condemning the violence of the U.S.-backed Indonesian military, he was told to cool it: "The Papal Nuncio," Kohen writes, "advised him to stick to his pastoral work" -- be a man of the system, dispense the sacraments, and do not stir up trouble with the Indonesian authorities with whom the Vatican must get along. Belo declined the counsel.

Kohen quotes the bishop in 1995 recalling a 1985 meeting with John Paul: "His Holiness said to me: `I understand your position. I pray for Timor. I suffer for Timor. But, on the other hand, the Church in Indonesia also needs our attention'." Similar tone-it-down advice was being dispensed from Rome to other bishops around the world who found themselves forced to defy the political judgments of the Vatican and stand with the victims of governmental violence. In words that could have been uttered in the 1980s in El Salvador, Guatemala or the Philippines, Belo issued a statement read in all East Timor churches on Dec. 5, 1988: "We disagree with this barbaric system and condemn the lying propaganda according to which human rights abuses do not exist in East Timor."

Kohen also has a grasp of American politics and its connections to Indonesia and East Timor. He details the chummy money deals Bill Clinton had in Jakarta. When Belo won the Nobel Peace Prize, he received no letter or phone call of congratulations from Clinton. In that, the president was in company with the murderous Suharto, who also ignored the award.

If Clinton had no time for Belo, other U.S. politicians did. Members of Congress -- including Reps. Tony Hall, Frank Wolf and Patrick Kennedy -- traveled to East Timor to learn for themselves the depths of violence to which the country had been subjected. Kohen states that "the abject terror [Wolf] found on his visit to East Timor was as bad as anything he had ever seen." And he has seen plenty: Bosnia, Chechnya, Sudan, China. In the epilogue, Kohen argues that "maximum world interest is needed if an end to East Timor's long nightmare is to be fully realized." Every page of From the Place of the Dead shows an author fully using his skills to rally that interest.

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace and teaches courses on non-violence at six Washington-area schools.