Timor-Leste is extremely Christian, but Indonesia is very Muslim. How do we stop these guys from demanding independence? What do Christians like? Christ! Genius, we should give them Christ! And thus, Cristo Rei de Dili was born.
The Indo-Timorese Relationship
Prior to annexation, Portuguese-Timor was a colony of Portugal. Because of problems at home, Portugal pretty much forgot about Timor in the 1970s. There were talks of Timor-Leste joining Indonesia by their own free will, but after a coup d’etat by political group Fretalin. Indonesia didn’t recognise this. Neither did Portugal.
Timor-Leste quickly become the battleground for yet another cold war conflict. Fretalin were a left wing party, and with the threat of communism, the US and Australia backed their right wing pals in Indonesia to invade and occupy the tiny country. Over 100,000 deaths later, ‘Timor Timur’ became Indonesia’s 27th province.
Twenty years on the cold war had ended and Indonesia had a random Catholic minority to keep happy. There were talks of succession, but Indonesia really wanted to keep Timor Timur part of Indonesia. What would Jesus do? That’s it, Jesus!
So on the majority Muslim island of Java, Indonesia constructed a giant statue of Jesus Christ. Perched upon a globe, the statue was 17 meters tall, representing the Independence Day of Indonesia; 17 August. The globe sat atop a pedestal, making the structure 27 meters tall, reminding Timor Timur that they are the 27th province of Indonesia, in case they forget. It was unveiled in 1996, a full year after the anniversary. Oh yeah, it also faces Jakarta, just because.
So after spending five billion rupiah to atone for 20 years of “pacification”, pandering to Catholics didn’t work too well. Timor-Leste voted for independence in 1999, and ratified in 2002.
Visiting Cristo Rei de Dili
It’s not far from central Dili. You can walk it in 1-2 hours each way. The walk is quite exposed so bring water. Alternatively, you can take a taxi or one of those cute little buses. Once you’re at the base of the hill, there is a 590 step ascent to reach the statue. There are lots of places to stop on the hill climb, including a chapel and a few other Christian-based structures. The views you see are worth the climb. The hill is on a small peninsular, so on one side you can look back towards Dili, the other side onto miles of beaches, or back inland at the hill country.
Crito Rei de Dili is not just a statue of the big JC. It’s a reminder to the people of Timor-Leste about their complicated relationship with Indonesia. You could argue that the gift was political, but they still like it. The Indonesians got one thing right, they do like Christ.