Reaching the Nations International Church Growth Almanac

Country reports on the LDS Church around the world from a landmark almanac. Includes detailed analysis of history, context, culture, needs, challenges and opportunities for church growth.

Timor-Leste (East Timor)

By David Stewart and Matt Martinich

Return to Table of Contents

East TimorGeography

Area: 14,874 square km.  Located in southeastern Indonesia, Timor-Leste (East Timor) occupies the eastern half of Timor Island, the Oecussi region in western Timor, and two nearby small islands.  Timor Island is the largest of the Lesser Sunda Islands.  Hot, tropical weather occurs year round with rainy and dry seasons.  Most the terrain is mountainous.  Floods, landslides, earthquakes, cyclones, and tsunamis are natural hazards.  Environmental issues include deforestation and soil erosion.  Timor-Leste is divided into 13 administrative districts.


Population: 1,154,625 (July 2010)       

Annual Growth Rate: 1.999% (2010)    

Fertility Rate: 3.2 children born per woman (2010)   

Life Expectancy: 65.23 male, 70.11 female (2010)



Timorese: 100%

Timorese consist of Indonesian, Papuan, and Chinese ethnicities. 


Languages: Tetum and Portuguese are official languages, whereas Indonesian and English are working languages.  91% of the population speaks Tetum as a first or second language and 43% of Timorese can speak Indonesian,[1] but less than 25% of the population speaks English or Portuguese.  There have been no reliable or recent estimates for the number of native speakers of Timor-Leste’s 19 indigenous languages.  Languages with the most speakers include Mambae, Makasae, Tukudede, Bunak, Kemak, Galoli, Tetun, and Tetun Dili. 

Literacy: 58.6% (2002)



Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, receives its name from the main island, Timor, which means  ‘east’ in Malay and Indonesian.  Early Austronesian peoples first settled the island of Timor several millennia ago.  Chinese and Indians first traded with the native peoples and were followed by the Portuguese, who began colonizing the island during the 16th century.  During the 19th century, the Portuguese lost control of the western half of the island to the Dutch.  In World War II, the Japanese occupied Timor between 1942 and 1945, after which power was restored to Portugal.  In 1975, Indonesia invaded nine days after East Timor declared independence from Portugal.  By the following year, East Timor became the Indonesian province of Timor Timur.  For the next two decades, the indigenous population demonstrated a passive stance against Indonesian occupation which resulted in heavy losses as up to a quarter of a million Timorese perished.  In 1999, the population of Timor-Leste voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia. This referendum was met with stiff opposition from anti-independence militias which killed as many as 1,400 and displaced hundreds of thousands.  Most of the Timor-Leste’s infrastructure was destroyed at this time including irrigation, utilities, and schools.  Independence occurred in 2002 and four years later, the nation almost fell into disorder.  Australia has assisted in helping maintain law and order over the past few years.  In 2008, a rebel group attempted to attack government leaders.  Overall conditions appear to be stabilizing. 



Portuguese colonization and the Catholic Church appear to have left the greatest contemporary cultural footprints.  Timor served as an important supplier of sandalwood for many centuries.  Native legends continue to shape culture and oral tradition.  Most the population has received little formal education. 



GDP per capita: $2,400 (2009) [5.2% of US]

Human Development Index: 0.489

Corruption Index: 2.2

In 1999, as much as 70% of the economic infrastructure was destroyed by militias and Indonesian troops.  Timor-Leste has faced many challenges rebuilding government and economic institutions but has seen many positive developments, including the extraction of oil reserves.  Government has regarded its oil deposits as key to future economic growth and wealth, although revenues from such development in other developing nations have typically been captured primarily by government elite and have offered only limited benefits to the general public.   Many remain unemployed and subject to poor living conditions; over 40% live below the poverty line.  Agriculture employs 90% of the workforce and produces a third of the GDP.  Primary crops include coffee, corn, rice, and cassava.  Services account for half the GDP.  


Corruption is perceived as widespread due to few government regulations and poor enforcement of laws.  Increasing wealth from oil profits in the hands of an elite few and mismanagement have perpetuated corruption. 



Christian: 99%

Muslim: 1%



Denominations  Members  Congregations

Catholic   1,131,533

Seventh-Day Adventists   351  1

Jehovah’s Witnesses  148  3

Latter-Day Saints  less than 20



Approximately 98% of the population is Catholic.  Traditional customs and beliefs continue to be followed by many, although they are not viewed as religious.  Few Timorese converted to Islam during Indonesian occupation  and  most ethnic Malay Muslims left the country after independence.[2] 


Religious Freedom

Persecution Index:

The constitution protects freedom of religion, which tends to be upheld by government policies and law.  There is no official state religion but the Catholic Church tends to have a strong influence on politics.  Non-Catholics have served in several legislative positions however.  Missionaries may operate in the country.  Government registration does not appear to be required and the Secretary of State for Security – the government organization responsible for approving religious group registrations – has yet to establish registration procedures.  Non-Catholic groups in Dili enjoy positive relations with the Catholic majority, whereas Protestants and Muslims in rural areas tend to experience greater suspicion.  Some instances of societal abuses of religious freedom have occurred and were typically aimed at Protestant denominations.  However, demonstrations to bar the operations of these denominations have failed due to government and international police support of preserving religious freedom.[3]


Largest Cities

Urban: 27%

Dili, Dare, Los Palos, Baucau, Ermera.

Cities listed in bold have no LDS congregation.


No cities in Timor-Leste have an LDS congregation.  19% of the national population lives in the five largest cities. 


LDS History

There has been no reported Church presence in Timor-Leste.  Timor-Leste belongs to the Indonesia Jakarta Mission. 


Membership Growth

LDS Membership: less than 20 (2009)

The Church does not report membership for Timor-Leste.  At least one Timorese member has joined the Church and in 2009 resided in West Malaysia.  


Congregational Growth

Branches: 0

No LDS congregations have functioned in Timor-Leste.  


Activity and Retention

No convert baptisms have occurred in the country.  Any members worship in the privacy of their own homes and have joined the Church elsewhere. 


Language Materials

Languages with LDS Scripture: Portuguese, Indonesian

All LDS scriptures are available in Portuguese and Indonesian.  Most Church materials have been translated into Portuguese and Indonesian. 


Humanitarian and Development Work

The Church donated clothing, food, and hygiene kits to refugees in West Timor who fled from East Timor in 2000.  A director of humanitarian services for the Church visited refugee camps in West Timor prompted the aid, for which the Church was thanked by the Indonesian government.[4]  Indonesian members packed and sent over 30,000 hygiene kits to Timor in 2000.[5]  New Zealander members also donated bedding, hygiene kits, and clothing.[6]  A single aid package worth over $156,000 was delivered for Christmas 2000 to Dili.[7]  In 2002, the Church provided the transportation for delivering wooden fishing boats from Australia to East Timor which were crafted by the Aussie Boats for East Timor charity.[8]


Opportunities, Challenges and Prospects


Religious Freedom

East Timor exhibits a strong respect for religious freedom despite recent independence, outbreaks of violence, and some social intolerance directed toward Protestant churches, especially in rural areas.  The Church has likely established a positive relationship with the government through years of humanitarian aid in the early 2000s.  Tolerance of non-Catholics in government positions also points toward potential for future Church members to integrate into society, particularly in Dili.  No legal obstacles appear to prevent an official Church presence, including proselytism and the organization of congregations.. 


Cultural Issues

The strong influence of the Catholic Church on society will likely pose some challenge for mission outreach as it has for other mission-oriented Christian denominations, although receptivity is likely to be greater than in Indonesia where Muslims predominate.  Low standards of living and poverty present opportunities for humanitarian service.


National Outreach

Limited mission resources, distance from mission headquarters in Jakarta, the lack of native members, the lack of church material in the dominant language, Timor-Leste’s small population, limited infrastructure, recent independence, and history of instability have likely reduced the priority of commencing missionary work.  Conditions for the initial establishment of the Church appear most accommodating in Dili due to its large population, somewhat central location, and greater tolerance toward non-Catholic groups.  Outreach in rural areas will likely not occur for many years following formal Church establishment in Dili.  Separated from the rest of Timor-Leste, the small Oecussi region may not receive mission outreach. 


Member Activity and Convert Retention

The strong influence of the Catholic Church may be a source of convert attrition due to societal and family pressures for potential LDS converts to return to their previous faith.  The development of local leadership, seminary and institute instruction, adequate pre-baptismal teaching and church attendance of prospective converts, and the creation of a Timorese full-time missionary force will greatly assist in the development of high member activity and convert retention. 


Ethnic Issues and Integration

The departure of many non-Timorese following independence has decreased ethnic diversity.  The Church will likely experience few if any future ethnic integration issues at church. 


Language Issues

The Church has no language materials available in native languages spoken by most the population.  Initial mission outreach will most likely commence with those who speak Indonesian, Portuguese, and English prior to greater breakthroughs with monolingual speakers of indigenous languages such as Tetum and Mambae.  



Without indigenous Church members, foreign missionaries will most likely hold leadership positions for several years following the assignment of the first senior missionary couple. 



East Timor belongs to the Hong Kong China Temple district.  No organized temple trips occur.


Comparative Growth

Timor-Leste shares many similarities with nations in the Pacific rather than with Asia due to ethnic and religious commonalities.  The Church has tended to experience slow initial membership growth in predominantly Catholic nations with little pluralism, although increasing pluralism has historically been associated with higher growth rates, as in the Philippines and Latin America.  Timor-Leste is among one of the few nations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific without an official Church presence. 


One of only two nations in Asia which have a predominantly Christian population, Timor-Leste has seen little growth among non-Catholic denominations due to political instability over the past several decades and the strength and size of the Catholic Church.  Protestant outreach has been limited to Dili and Atauro and growth has been slow.


Future Prospects

Past humanitarian aid and current economic development needs may help the Church gain an official foothold in Timor-Leste.  However the country’s isolated location from mission headquarters in Jakarta, government’s fragile hold on its internal affairs, and limitations of missionary manpower and resources  may discouraged the Church from actively pursuing mission activity for several more years.  Timorese members who joined the Church abroad and return to their home country may provide some inroads for establishing the Church, although this method is unlikely to be effective for many years due to the small national population, the smaller number of expatriate Timorese in nations with outreach, and the strong economic gradients discouraging expatriates from returning..   As Timor becomes increasingly stable, considerable opportunities exist for the establishment of mission outreach. The placement of even one senior missionary couple in Dili could greatly assist in the establishment of the Church over the long term.

[1]  “Background Note: Timor-Leste,” Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, 12 February 2010.

[2]  “Timor-Leste,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[3]  “Timor-Leste,” International Religious Freedom Report 2009, 26 October 2009.

[4]  “Indonesian minister thanks Church for aid,” LDS Church News, 6 May 2000.

[5]  Sheffield, Sheridan.  “Delivering hope with humanitarian aid,” LDS Church News, 21 October 2000.

[6]  “Relief Society gives humanitarian aid,” LDS Church News, 22 July 2000.

[7]  “Christmas aid to help East Timor regrow,” LDS Church News, 30 December 2000.

[8]  “Church supports boats for Timor,” LDS Church News, 26 October 2002.