The Asian continent has two majority-Christian nations. One, obviously, is the Philippines. Few nonspecialists would know the other example: East Timor. Lying between Australia and Indonesia, it is one of the world’s newest countries—in fact the first new nation of the present century. East Timor is also definitively Christian, with a reported Catholic population of 97 percent. Those bare-bones facts, though, conceal a heroic and often dreadful history, recalling one of the world’s worst atrocities of the late 20th century.

For centuries, East Timor was a Portuguese colony. (The word Timor simply means “east.”) In 1974, a leftist-led revolution in Portugal precipitated a global crisis at the height of the cold war. The Soviet Union and Cuba staged a massive move into Portugal’s African colonies, and the West feared that Timorese liberation forces might create a communist haven in the South Pacific. To prevent that disaster, the United States and its allies supported an Indonesian invasion of East Timor in late 1975.

Political takeovers can take many forms, but this was no simple case of a change of occupiers, with a set of new flags. During their occupation, from 1975 through 1999, the Indonesians ruled with hideous brutality. Almost 200,000 Timorese died, either from direct violence or from starvation and maltreatment. As the territory has only a million residents today, slaughter on that scale does not fall far short of the much better known Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia. The word genocide is not farfetched.