WHEN the jet carrying Pope John Paul II breezes into East Timor tomorrow, it could fan the embers of a fading conflict. In 1975, troops from neighboring Indonesia invaded the isolated territory just months after Portuguese rulers abandoned their long-held colony. The occupation sparked an international outcry that still dogs Indonesia, a mainly Muslim nation.
The stopover by the activist Roman Catholic leader could either heal or heat up the controversy, depending on his public acts and remarks.
Roman Catholics make up only about 2.5 percent of Indonesia's 187 million population. But the greatest concentration - about 600,000 - is on East Timor, a result of four centuries of Portuguese rule.
The papal visit angers human-rights advocates, who charge that the pope's stopover will give de facto sanction to Indonesia's takeover and to alleged human-rights abuses against East Timorese.
Yet the Vatican implicitly does not honor Jakarta's rule: It administers the island's faithful directly from Rome, not through the Indonesian Council of Bishops. And while the pope's Oct. 9-14 trip to Indonesia is an official state visit, his stop in the East Timorese capital of Dili is designated as pastoral.
Indonesian officials are holding their breath to see if the pope condones or even endorses a call by Dili's bishop, Carlos Ximenes Belo, for a referendum on the territory's official status.
In a letter to the United Nations earlier this year, Monsignor Belo said that ``up to now the people have not been consulted [about their future].'' He also criticized Portugal for ``wanting to let time solve the problem.''
If the pope ignores the bishop's plea, it could strengthen Jakarta's hand to be rid of the East Timor albatross.
Indonesia justified invading, and later annexing, East Timor on the claim that it had to stop a communist state from being created on its flank. The island's western half was already part of Indonesia, a country of more than 14,000 islands.
Only this year has the government lifted travel restrictions to East Timor. It kept outsiders away for 14 years while it waged an anti-insurgency campaign against a local guerrilla movement. The opening was a sign that Jakarta is confident the dispute is being laid to rest.
The guerrilla movement, led by the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, says it is not communist, but an indigenous group seeking self-determination. Fretilin, as it is called, appears to have only a few hundred guerrillas remaining out of an estimated 10,000. But its leaders are still vocal from their base in Portugal.
Other nations have used the East Timor issue against Indonesia in international bodies, even though the annexation appears irreversible. The UN still recognizes Portugal's claim. And the issue has helped keep Indonesia, though a founding member, from ever being head of the ``Nonaligned Movement.''