Mobile clinic narrows healthcare gap in Timor-Leste

Jesuit priest travels to hamlets on hillocks, serves as a band-aid for state’s medical woes

Jesuit Father Antonio Martins Abad-Santos, a Filipino most villagers know as Father Bong, celebrates Mass before performing medical check-ups on his patients in Gmanhati hamlet, Ermera district on Jan. 22. (Photo by Michael Coyne)

Mountainous terrain, inadequate modes of transportation and shortages of medical personnel and facilities have all combined to hamper efforts in Timor-Leste to provide local people with adequate healthcare.

As a result many people, particularly children, women and the elderly in rural areas often struggle to access hospitals or clinics when they fall sick or are in need of a check-up. Even access to clean water is a key concern.

However, mobile clinics such as the one organized by a local Jesuit mission is bringing healthcare closer to home — even into people’s living rooms.

Izabel Soares, 21, is among the residents of Gmanhati hamlet in Ermera district who are benefiting from the new service.

She recently took her 3-month-old baby to meet Jesuit Father Antonio Martins Abad-Santos, a Filipino doctor known here as Father Bong.

A certified medical practitioner, he runs the clinic and makes regular visits to a nearby village made even more remote by its hillside location.

Chronic back pain makes it difficult for Soares to stray far from home so the mobile clinic was a godsend on this occasion as her daughter was showing signs of malaria, running a fever and coughing.

“I don’t have to go to the hospital now to collect the medicine and vitamins for me and my baby because Father Bong brings them here for us,” she said.

Before the priest started the clinic, people had to walk to the nearest facility in Railaco about eight kilometers away.

“For young people that’s not such a problem. But for senior citizens like me, or for women, it’s a real challenge to cover such a distance by foot,” said 75-year-old Alderiano Goncalves, who lives in the same hamlet.

Goncalves has been afflicted with rheumatism for years and has to contend with seasonal migraines, fever and a recurring cough.

He met the priest for the first time eight years ago. Before the advent of the clinic he used to rely on traditional medicine supplied by local practitioners because the nearest hospital was too far from home. 

Father Bong’s visits serve as a beacon of hope for hundreds of villagers. Not only does he minister to their physical needs and ailments but also provides spiritual nourishment by celebrating Mass with them before providing treatment.

“We get both — physical and spiritual nurture,” said Goncalves, who lives with his biological child and three adopted kids. One is preparing to work in South Korea, in hope of serving as a new breadwinner for the struggling family. The Northeast Asian powerhouse is a prime destination for overseas workers from Timor-Leste.

Plazida dos Santos, 22, from nearby Naisuta hamlet, also in Ermera district, said the Jesuit priest is now working on her second child’s skin problems after treatments sought elsewhere proved ineffective.

“I’ve taken my baby to Gleno [the capital of Ermera] several times but the doctor just prescribed paracetamol and she’s still sick,” she said.

Now the wounds on her daughter’s feet have rendered her immobile, she added.

And she is not alone. Many of the children suffer from skin problems and parents are at a loss when it comes to dealing with them.

A plague of infections

Father Bong’s mobile medical clinic covers 11 areas in the two districts of Ermera and Liquica. He launched the service in 2004 as part of his pastoral duties at the Jesuit Railaco Mission.

Helped by two assistants, he heads out to local villages every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, traversing treacherous trails that require a strong sense of adventure.

“We run a mobile clinic because we don’t want to compete with the government clinic in Railaco,”Father Bong said.

“We target those people living in the mountains who cannot be reached by government clinics or medical workers,” said the Filipino priest.

“Every year I see more than 5,000 patients,” he said, adding that most cases involve an infection of some kind. He blamed malnutrition as this weakens the immune system and opens the door for infection.

“I meet lots of people with this kind of problem, such as respiratory infections, intestinal infections or upset stomachs,” he said.

The villagers often fail to prepare their meals in a sanitary way while the elderly chew betel nuts. Smoking is commonplace.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), lower respiratory infections were the second-biggest cause of death in 2012 among the Timorese people after tuberculosis.

Other major threats to their mortality include ischemic heart disease, strokes, birth asphyxia or trauma during conception, diarrheal diseases, neonatal sepsis and infections or cancer of the trachea, bronchus or lungs.

The clinic cannot deal with all of these complaints and illnesses because it is part of an outreach program and not that well-equipped.

The doctor-priest is restricted to providing first aid or primary healthcare and trying to prevent people from getting more sick.

He refers serious cases to government hospitals or clinics with better facilities.

Father Bong, who was ordained as a priest in 1998 back in the Philippines, said the St. Canice Parish in Sydney, Australia has been providing financial support for the clinic’s operations for years.

“In the beginning they only offered their help for five years. But when they saw the need was there, they continued,” he said.

Healthcare challenges

Timor-Leste is struggling with a fractious young government but has achieved significant improvements in terms of its healthcare, according to a report by the World Bank in 2017.

For example, when the fledgling state gained independence from Indonesia in 2002 its healthcare infrastructure was decimated with only 20 doctors to tend to a population in excess of 1 million.

Fortunately that number has since multiplied significantly, with the government employing nearly 900 doctors as of last year.

People’s life expectancy soared from a dismal 48.5 years in 1990 to 67 years in 2014.

Meanwhile, antenatal coverage has improved and the general population are now much more aware of infectious and non-communicable diseases, officials say.

This has been helped by a health budget that has curved upward since 2008. The government allocated $67.2 million for the Ministry of Health in 2014 to build 39 clinics, among other projects.

But Bolormaa Amgaabazar, the World Bank’s country representative for Timor-Leste, has warned “the growth outlook for the Timorese economy during the next few years is subdued.”

“As such, the government is attempting to put a curb on rising public spending,” he added.

Father Bong said the nation’s woes are widespread and even the National Hospital in Dili suffers from a lack of medicine.

“The current government focuses more on bureaucracy than the quality of healthcare that’s provided,” he said.

The country has sent nearly 1,000 young people to study as doctors in Cuba in recent years, and now many have returned to plant new seeds.

“But for them to perform their duties effectively and efficiently, the government needs to upgrade its healthcare equipment,” Father Bong said.

“If the healthcare system was more efficient and the country had world-class facilities, people wouldn’t need my help,” he said.

“Then I could focus on my duties as a priest.”

This article was republished in UCA News on January 2 2019


Catholics seek bigger impact in Indonesian politics

Applying church values in the service of all society will see changes for the better, Catholic politicians told

A woman votes in Jakarta’s governor election in this Feb. 15, 2017 file photo. This month, voters in 17 provinces and more than 150 districts and municipals go to the polls to elect new leaders and legislators. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/

Many years in politics has taught Stefanus Asat Gusma to take failure on the chin and to look upon it as coming with the territory.

Four years ago Gusma, who hails from Bondowoso in Central Java, failed in his bid to be elected to Indonesia’s national parliament.

However, adopting the philosophy “If you don’t at first succeed…” he hopes things will soon be different with the country going back to the polls for a general election in April next year.

“It won’t be long before the race begins,” Gusma told, adding he was currently waiting for his Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) to assign him an electoral district to run in.

For him, involvement in politics is a manifestation of his Catholic faith and the social teachings of the church.

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His interest in politics began in high school and blossomed during his university years in Jakarta, which saw him serve as president of the Indonesian Catholic Students Association (PMKRI) from 2009 to 2011.

Gusma said moving to Jakarta widened his political horizons, and enabled him to immerse himself further into the political world by engaging with more influential people and political parties.

“After I finished up at the PMKRI, several political parties approached me, but I chose the PDIP, because its political mission was closest to mine,” he said.

Now the ruling party, the PDIP was founded in 1999 by Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. The PDIP is known as the party of the wong cilik — marginalized people.

The party currently forms part of the ruling coalition after winning 109 seats in the 560-seat national parliament four years ago.

Aside from Gusma, many other Christian politicians are members of the party, but the majority of its 340,000 members are Muslims.

“But it does not matter what party Catholics or Christians are in, they must fight for the interests of the Indonesian people, and must live a dignified political life at both national and local level,” he said.

About 10 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million population are Christian, of which 16.4 million are Protestant and 7 million Catholic, according to the latest census.

Most are concentrated in East Nusa Tenggara, North Sumatra, Papua, North Sulawesi, West and East Kalimantan, West and Central Java and Jakarta.

Some of these provinces are among 17 that will elect new governors on June 27, and local legislators in 154 districts and municipalities.

Indonesian bishops are encouraging Catholics to participate actively in this month’s elections. Politics has noble values such as service, dedication, sacrifice, justice, honesty, solidarity, freedom, and responsibility, they said.

“If those values are lived and followed, politics will become a noble feature of life,” Archbishop Vincentius Sensi Potokota, chairman of the Commission for the Laity said recently in a statement.

Catholics are called upon to be the salt and light of the world. In the context of an election, this is achieved by being good voters, participating as organizers, and becoming candidates, the bishops said.

For those running as candidates, the bishops said they should avoid sectarian campaigning and must offer better solutions to people’s problems, and be brave in facing threats such as the emergence of radical groups in their areas.

Beyond church walls

Paulus Krissantono, a former Golkar Party parliamentarian during the Suharto era, welcomes the call, believing it will give more people a positive mindset about politics, which is often seen as a minefield of dirty tricks.

That’s because politicians set bad examples through graft, manipulation and thirst for power, he said.

“Catholic politicians must be different from others, particularly in making sacrifices for the common good. They need to witness the truth, uphold justice and care for the welfare of all,” he said.

They must support this with a spirit of service and if necessary make sacrifices in pursuing these values, not merely seek power or pander to sectarian demands, he added.

He said his party once threatened to expel him for standing against the eviction of local people for a Central Java dam project and pressing for the teaching of various religions in schools, but backed down when Suharto supported him.

“Catholic politicians running for office must break free from the church’s comfort zone,” he said.

“Leave your church compound and reach out to non-Catholics, be they laborers, taxi drivers, women’s groups, Muslim clerics,” he said.

He also asked Catholics to learn from Ignatius Joseph Kasimo Hendrowahyono, a cabinet member during the Sukarno era, and the founder of the Indonesian Catholic Party and Catholic University of Atma Jaya.

He was declared a national hero for his service to the country and promoting honesty, professionalism, intellectuality and religious truth.

Father Antonius Suyadi, director of Jakarta Archdiocese’ Commission for Interreligious Dialogue said every Catholic has the responsibility to participate in nation building.

“Catholics are encouraged to participate in politics to ensure that no-individual, group or political party establish a country based on one certain religion,” he said.

Interfaith dialogue

According to Berthy B Rahawarin, newly elected general secretary of Harmoni Indonesia — the Catholic arm of the United Indonesia Party (Perindo) founded by Christian business tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibijo — the greatest challenge for Catholics in a multi-ethnic and religious society is fostering ties with non-Catholics.

“[Many] non-Christians equate Christianity with colonialism,” he said.

“Those [Catholics going] into politics should be aware of this, and don’t be over confident in the way they think, act and communicate,” he told

“If necessary, they should be able to explain how the church is different from colonialism,” he added.

He also said that with President Joko Widodo providing a wider space for democracy and public participation in recent years, there is now “a good opportunity for society as a whole, not just the church, to participate more efficiently, measurably, and make changes for the better.”

Published in UCAN on June 12, 2018


Prison brings Timor-Leste inmates closer to God

Convicted rapists, murderers rejoice in being shown the path to righteousness as Easter approaches

Prisoners join a regular prayer service at the Ermera District Court in Gleno, Timor-Leste, in January 2018. (Photo by Michael Coyne/

Julio was a physics teacher at a high school in Timor-Leste before he made a series of wrong decisions that finally landed him in jail.

He worked in Oecusse district, close to border with Indonesia. Everything was going fine, he said, until he made the mistake of falling in love with a 14-year-old student.

Their feelings became so strong that the father of six, who declined to give his real name, said their affair soon blossomed into a sexual relationship.

“I was in love with her, so of course we became intimate,” he told, adding the relationship lasted four months.

However, in 2011 the news reached the girl’s family. They accused Julio of raping the young student. Top of Form

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“I was attacked and beaten by several members of her family. They also reported me to the police,” he said. “The case went to court and in June 2013 I was sentenced to 12 years in prison for rape.”

During those early days, he said he spent most of his time feeling sorry for himself and wondering how he would cope.

But after several encounters with priests and other members of the church while behind bars, he began trying to follow the teachings of the Bible.

Sensing God’s presence

This coming June will mark Julio’s fifth year at Ermera District Jail in Gleno, about 40 kilometers west of the Timor-Leste capital of Dili, where another prison is located.

Instead of counting down his days in prison, he said he reflects on the harm he has inflicted on his family, the girl and her family, the school he worked for, society and God.

“I really regret what I did. I always ask for God’s forgiveness for that,” he said.

As he devotes more time to religious studies and his inner conversion to Christianity, he said he can feel God mapping out a path for him to walk down.

“I’m sad because I left my family to struggle by themselves. But I’m also happy because [I realize] prison is God’s way of telling me to return to Him. I believe God has plans for me in the future,” he said.

He said the loneliness he feels, and the pain of living so far removed from his family, pales in comparison to the suffering of Jesus, who died on the cross.

“Jesus was crucified for me. His suffering was far bigger than mine,” he said.

For Julio, the crucifix and Easter are now a central part of his life. To help sustain his conviction he stays active in the prison ministry — singing in the choir, praying with other inmates, and attending Mass.

Maubere — also not his real name — was a catechist before he was jailed. The 47-year-old said he never imagined he would one day be locked up.

His problems began after he contested a local election to serve as the leader of his village. He won and served successfully for four years before he was undone when news of his affair with a 17-year-old girl came to light, he said.

“I was accused of raping the girl. I was reported to the police and finally in 2014 the court sentenced me to six years in prison,” said Maubere, who still believes he was the victim of a politically motivated attack by village rivals.

Instead of fighting back, he said he had no choice but to accept the court’s ruling.

“I didn’t have enough money to pay lawyers to fight on my behalf. I just accepted their decision. This is God’s way of telling me to follow His path,” he said.

He continues his work as a catechist in prison, helping his fellow inmates grow closer to God with community prayers, religious classes, Bible sharing and Mass, held once a week in a chapel inside the prison.

Maubere assists prison chaplains such as Jesuits from Our Lady of Fatima Church in Railaco and priests in Gleno, who regularly deliver Mass there and hear confessions at the prison.

“I also help my friends to recollect their past deeds, something we do ahead of religious festivals like Christmas and Easter, ” he said.

‘Not here to judge’

Anibal Da Luz, 42, has been a guard at the prison for 18 years. He said the facility was renovated around the time he started working there and it now has around 90 prisoners, including 17 women.

Inmates’ sentences range from four to 24 years, he said. The man with the longest jail term was imprisoned for raping and killing a woman. The youngest inmate is 18, and is also there for raping a minor. The oldest inmate is 60.

“Most of them have been convicted of murder, followed by cases of rape or those involving narcotics,” he said.

Agustino de Fatima Salsinha, 43, serves as the deputy head of Ermera Prison. He said inmates are encouraged to see prison as an opportunity to change their lives and work toward a brighter future while forgetting their dark pasts.

They receive training to arm them with a range of skills including carpentry, welding, brick making and more.

As many of the inmates are illiterate, the prison teaches them how to read and write as well as providing other forms of academic education.

“We also offer them spiritual guidance, such as by inviting chaplains to come in,” Salsinha said.

He said preaching alone is not enough: The inmates must be shown how they can transform their lives and prepare to re-enter society as better people.

“So when they leave prison, they’ll already have the skills they need to start new a life,” he said.

He said it was important to treat inmates like people who are capable of converting to a better life.

“We’re not here to judge them, but to make them realize they are humans, people who have faith,” said Salsinha.

“It’s our job to make them realize their wrongdoing and help them look forward to a better life in the future,” he added.

As of now, Timor-Leste has two prisons. The biggest one is in Dili, which has over 560 inmates. A third is scheduled to be built soon in the western part of Timor-Leste, near the Indonesian border.

Salsinha said that while the number of prisoners nationwide is relatively small compared to Timor-Leste’s population of 1.2 million, state resources are being stretched.

Dili prison is suffering more than Ermera as it has more prisoners, he said, adding it needs more staff to bolster security and ensure the programs designed to improve inmates’ lives are carried out properly.

“Like I said, we’re preparing people for the next stage in their lives. We just need a few more personnel to help us carry that out,” Salsinha said.

Published in UCA News on March 28, 2018


The rising menace of sectarian politics in Indonesia

The stoking of religious and racial sentiments by underdogs will likely reappear during upcoming elections, scholars warn

Indonesian protesters chant slogans against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also know as Ahok, following his trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. Sectarian mudslinging became a major concern during the Jakarta governor’s election this year, leading observers to predict similar tactics being employed in upcoming elections.(Photo by Adek Berry/ AFP)

The once warm relationship between Sumiyati and her neighbors has deteriorated significantly in the past few months all because they do not share the same political views.

During this year’s Jakarta governor election, she not only voted for former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, but actively campaigned for him.

She did not see his being a Christian and ethnic Chinese as a problem. She voted for him because she believed he was honest, corruption free, and concerned about poor people.

After her champion was defeated in the race by Anies Baswedan, a former education minister who was backed by a large number of Muslims, including religiously radical ones, her neighbors began to see her in a different light.

“I’m no longer invited to community activities, unlike before when all activities in the neighborhood, even at mosques, were done together,” said Sumiyati, 65, who like many Indonesians only has one name.Top of FormBottom of Form

What Sumiyati is experiencing is just one of many examples of the fallout caused by the sectarian mudslinging that dogged the Jakarta election earlier this year.

The sectarianism that took place was on an unprecedented scale and created deep divisions within Indonesia’s normally pluralistic society.

An example of this was seen recently when more than 100 alumni of a Jesuit-run college in Jakarta walked out during a speech given by Baswedan at the school’s 90th anniversary celebration. 


Observers say this sectarian divide is a huge threat to national stability because it comes from within society itself and is an unfortunate consequence of Indonesia’s religious, race and ethnic plurality. 

“Indonesia’s growing democracy provides room for everything to grow side by side. If these different elements are not well managed, they can easily collide,” said Agus Sartono, deputy coordinator of religious affairs at the Coordinating Ministry for Human Development and Culture.

Sectarianism has gradually sharpened its claws since the dawn of the reform era marked by the fall of Soharto in 1998.

It was clearly seen during the 2014 presidential election, when the rivals of eventual winner, Joko Widodo, questioned his Muslim identity, and even branded him a Christian and Communist

Worse was to come during this year’s Jakarta governor election when hundreds of thousands of Muslims took part in a series of “defending Islam” protests to oust the favorite, Christian governor Purnama, popularly known as “Ahok.”

“Social divisions will continue as long as religious or ethnic sentiments are used,” Sartono said. 

More than 170 provinces, districts and municipalities will elect new leaders in June 2018. A year later in May 2019 Indonesia is due to have its presidential election with Widodo expected to seek a second five-year term. 

“I’m sure a candidate’s ethnicity, religion or race will be used against them in the upcoming elections,” said Sri Yanuarti, a senior political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. 

However, it may not be as conspicuous in local elections, because voters have many candidate options.

“It will be strong during the presidential election because people will have only a few candidates and the campaigning will be more uncompromising,” she said.

Most political parties have declared support for Widodo, making him the strongest candidate. It also means that standard political strategies to oust him will not be good enough to crack his armor. Sectarian issues are likely to be used by the underdogs against him, just like they did in the 2014 presidential election, Sri said.

“The government and related parties should start now to ward off potential sectarian conflict, to mitigate its severity,” she added. 

Unceasing dialogue

Komarudin Hidayat, a former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta told a recent seminar on the threat sectarian conflicts pose to Indonesian elections, that the root cause of conflicts is not religion, but social disparity, exacerbated by globalization, particularly the influence of China and the United States. 

The Jakarta election, he said, was a battle between religion and wealth.

“Ahok [Purnama ] was seen as a symbol of wealth or capital owners, mostly Chinese. While Anies Baswedan represented marginalized religion, Islam and its clerics,” he said. 

It’s worsened by the failure of political parties to educate their cadres in true statesmanship. Instead, they only focus on how to win elections, no matter how, even if it means by exploiting sectarian issues, he said.

“Political parties must improve their integrity,” Hidayat said.  

According to political observer, Ichsan Malik, one problem that easily causes sectarian conflicts is a loss of community spirit.

People put their own interests first, and forget about others, which stokes mistrust, he said. 

“So the biggest challenge for society is to rekindle a spirit of togetherness, to eliminate distrust, through constant dialogue,” he said.

Father Rofinus Neto Wuli, a military chaplain and lecturer at the University of National Defense, said dialogue should not just be in words but through direct contact with people from other religions, races and ethnic backgrounds.

“Sectarian issues will continue to be used. All we can do is to minimize its divisiveness, by promoting reconciliation and a message of peace,” he told

Published in UCA News on Nov.28 2017