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Fiji Methodist Leaders Face Court Tomorrow

In an unprecedented attack on religious freedom in Fiji the Methodist President Rev Ame Tugaue and General Secretary Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu will be back in court tomorrow (Thursday 13 August) charged with breaching the Public Emergency Regulations imposed by the Military Government.

The charges arose after the Methodist Church Standing Committee refused to prohibit two of its ministers from attending the July meeting.

If they are found guilty, the penalties can be as high as a $500 fine or one year in jail or both. Seven other Methodist leaders are also charged.

The bail conditions they have been placed under since their original court appearance on 23 July have prevented the Church from going about its normal operation.

After the government prohibited the holding of the 2009 Annual Conference, the Methodist Church reached an agreement with the government to allow an expanding Standing Committee meeting of 250 or so to proceed later this month.

It was reported that seven Methodist ministers led by former church president Rev Laisiasa Ratabacaca made a traditional approach to the chiefly host at Rewa to advise of its cancellation of the Conference.

“It was a difficult task for the church to convey this message to the vanua of Rewa and it was also difficult for the Marama Roko Tui Dreketi (Ro Teimumu Kepa) to accept,” Church Deputy General Secretary Reverend Tevita Banivanua was reported to have told the Fiji Times.

“But we’re strengthened by God’s word when he said: ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10).”

Usually held concurrently with the conference permits have been granted for the Methodist choir festival to be hosted regionally and some Fijian Australians have already left to join the Suva division of the festival. Others will be leaving soon to join them.

More militant people both within and beyond the Methodist Church have expressed disappointment with the compromise that has been reached, but the leadership has expressed that it does not want to take a confrontational approach.

Rev Banivanua told the Fiji Times there were two ways to deal with the State’s decision not to allow the conference – to be confrontational, which the church did not want to be seen as, or be humble. “That is God’s will,” he said.

He said the vanua Rewa had accepted this decision since it only awaited the voice of the church but the Chief Ro Teimumu is also due in court on Thursday and is also currently bound by strict bail conditions preventing her from calling any meetings to inform her people of the decision.

The government spin on the decision was conveyed by a headline page one article in the Fiji Sun in which Commodore Bainimarama said Government and the security forces strongly believe that the Methodist Church should in fact refrain from politics.

“This is largely because we all have our individual roles to play – religion to engage in spiritual development and the Government to manage the state’s affairs,” he said.

However the Methodist leadership has been clear it is not supporting the government.

UnitingWorld Associate Director (Pacific) Bruce Mullan said by not having thousands of Methodists descending on Rewa as had been planned, the church has adopted a more conciliatory line in order to avoid the risk of violent protest.

“I encourage everyone to remain at prayer about the situation in Fiji until there is a healthier resolution than at present,” Mr Mullan said.