Portugal—26 Years Later
“YOU have 30 days to leave the country.” With that ultimatum, in 1962 my wife and I were forced to leave Portugal, our missionary assignment.
Along with four other missionaries, we were being expelled for being Jehovah’s Witnesses and for being neutral on issues of war and politics. My 19-year-old Bible student, João Gonçalves Mateus, was the first Portuguese Witness to take a firm stand on neutrality. The chief of the secret police quoted João’s name to me and told me that such conscientious objection was a luxury that Portugal would not tolerate. I lost track of João when we left Portugal.
Back then, Portugal was a Catholic-Fascist dictatorship, struggling with rebellion in its African colonies. The spirit of the people was oppressed and stifled. Distrust reigned everywhere because of the paid-informer system, whereby you could be denounced to the infamous secret police—a PIDE (Polícia Internacional e Defesa do Estado), as they were called in Portuguese.
So we were expelled, and Jehovah’s Witnesses became a banned religion until 1974 when an army-sponsored revolution overthrew the Fascist regime, and democracy and religious freedom were introduced. In December of that year, the Witnesses were legalized, and soon they had organized a branch office in Estoril, a few miles along the coast from Lisbon. But with the fast expansion of the work, it became too small. In 1983 land was bought for a new Watch Tower branch, or “Bethel” (“House of God,” in Hebrew) complex. A beautiful new building was constructed by the Witnesses in the little town of Alcabideche.
Situated on a hill, Bethel commands a view all the way down to Lisbon and the famous suspension bridge over the Tagus River, which leads to the imposing Cristo Rei (Christ King) statue. In another direction the view takes in Estoril and the coastline.
We, along with many other former missionaries, were invited to attend the dedication program in April 1988. When my wife and I arrived at the police control at Lisbon airport, I could not help but wonder if we would be challenged. Would they check the old blacklist that prevented us from reentering 26 years ago? No problem at all. The PIDE had disappeared, and we discovered a new Portugal—the people were more open, smiling, and communicative. And instead of the 1,000 Witnesses that we left in 1962, there are now more than 33,000, a ratio of 1 Witness for every 297 people, one of the best in Europe!
We went to the Restelo (Belem) soccer stadium for the afternoon lecture given by a member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Milton Henschel, through the Portuguese translator Mario Pinto Oliveira. What a satisfaction for my wife—she had been Mario’s English teacher over 26 years ago. As we climbed the hill to the stadium there was an amazing sight—more than 45,000 Portuguese Witnesses and their friends flocking to hear the program.
As the program ended, I saw a well-built Portuguese Witness in his 40’s who obviously wanted to speak to me. “Irmão Erico (Brother Eric), do you not know me?” he asked. I confessed I did not recognize him. Then with a closer look, I took off a few kilos of his weight and 26 years of life—it was Jõao Gonçalves Mateus! What a joyful reunion after so many years! He presented us to his wife and three daughters, a lovely family and all Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We spent four happy days in Portugal, renewing old acquaintances and friendships. How encouraging to see faithful men and women who had endured over the years in spite of persecution. One was José Lança, a journalist in the days of our persecution, now a traveling overseer who visits the congregations. Another was António Cordeiro, the first pioneer minister in Portugal. Their joyful faces reflected Portugal’s new spiritual prosperity, the result of decades of preaching faithfully the good news of God’s Kingdom.
We visited the street where our secret Kingdom Hall apartment used to be, on the second floor of number 66, Calçada de Arroios. It was once again an apartment. But now there are over 440 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses meeting in legal Kingdom Halls all over the country. After 26 years’ absence, we found that Portugal is certainly different—and far better for Jehovah’s Witnesses.—Contributed.
[Picture on page 16]
View of the Watch Tower Society’s branch office and factory in Alcabideche, Portugal
[Pictures on page 17]
Forty-five thousand attended a special program at the Restelo soccer stadium, Lisbon
Secret Bible meeting in woods near Lisbon in 1961