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Fiji Government Muscles Methodists

Fiji Methodist Deputy General Secretary Rev Tevita Nawadra Banivanua. Photo by Bruce Mullan
Not content to confine its muscle to the field it knows best, the Fiji military has moved in on the Methodist Church, attempting to influence Church leadership decisions and interfering in the life of the Church.

A recent showdown over the Methodist Church Annual Conference has ended with the Military Government cancelling the Conference for the third year in a row, banning all meetings and preventing all Methodist ministers from travelling overseas.

All meetings, worship and fellowship services and programmes other than on Sunday have been banned.

The latest written Police directive also bans all Church bazaars, fundraising, rallies, camping, open air meetings, and sports days.

The only services now permitted are regular Sunday services.

Church leaders expressed deep concern about the Fiji military interference in church decisions.

“The Government must not decide who will lead the Church.” said Rev Dr Kerry Enright, National Director of UnitingWorld.

“That role belongs to the Church alone.

The Government needs to carry out its appointed role, and allow the Church to do the same.”

Conflict flared when the Government demanded that Methodist Church President Ame Tugaue and General Secretary Tuikilakila Waqairatu refrain from taking part in the Conference.

The pair had been charged by the Military Government in 2009 with organising an unauthorised public meeting.

Fiji Landforce Commander, Colonel Tikoitoga, stated that Tugaue and Waqairatu should have stepped down from their leadership positions until the investigations were complete.

“They refused to accept that explanation.

They maintained that a person is innocent until proven guilty,” Tikoitoga said.

In response, Dr Enright noted that the Church has bent over backwards to be conciliatory towards the Government, submitting its agenda for approval prior to the Conference.

“This latest move on the part of the Government represents unacceptable interference from the State in the life of the Church.”

“It is a clear violation of the fundamental human right to religious freedom at a time when the Church has been working hard to stabilize the relationship with the Government" he said.

Around 1000 church members, gathered in Suva for the 2011 Annual Conference, were left stranded when permission to meet was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

According to Mr Bruce Mullan, UnitingWorld Associate Director for the Pacific, who was the only foreign observer present to attend the meetings, frustrations ran high.

Many had made long and expensive journeys to be part of the conference.

Methodist Deputy General Secretary Tevita Banivanua spoke of the pain that people experienced as a result of the cancellation.

“They have spent lots of money, lots of preparation, they have left their homes for them to go through this, and it’s not an easy time for them,” Mr Banivanua said.

Methodists represent one third of the population of Fiji and Rotuma.

In spite of the challenges, the Fiji Methodist Church remains determined to find a way to work with the Government without compromising its own values.

In response to claims that there have been political overtones to some of the Methodist Church’s actions in the past, Mr Mullan stated he had read the full agenda in English and that it contained nothing of any political nature whatsoever.

“I saw a Church that worked very hard with the Government to get approval to hold its Annual Conference for the first time in more than three years."

“The agenda was fully approved.

To have that overturned and thrown out at the last minute was a humiliation to them and the outcomes they had worked so hard to achieve.”

The Church has been co-operative with regard to their activities and agenda and they are now being pressured to give in on the fundamental issue of autonomy over leadership decisions.

On what was to have been the last day of the Conference, a last minute gathering of 57 Divisional Church Stewards endorsed the actions of President Tugaue and General Secretary Waqairatu in resisting pressure from the Government to step down from their positions.

One church insider is reported to have said, “Even if there is no Church Conference for ten years, they will still be the President and General Secretary.

It’s a victory, a moral victory.”

Dr Enright said “The Fiji Government has also been intimidating the Fiji Trade Union movement.

It is very sad to see bodies that contribute to the wellbeing of people being treated this way.”

For updates on the situation, and more information on specific action to take to support the Fijian Methodists in Fiji and Rotuma, go to unitingworld.org.au

Photo : Fiji Methodist Deputy General Secretary Rev Tevita Nawadra Banivanua. Photo by Bruce Mullan