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Fiji Methodists double-crossed by interim government

Tears were shed in Fiji and Australia after Commodore Frank Bainimarama revoked the promised permit for the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma to hold its annual choir competition on a district level.

The permit was the Military Government’s part of a compromise agreement where the Methodist leadership agreed to cancel their annual conference and national choir competition if the government would allow the choirs to gather on a regional basis.

Shaken by this latest sudden change Methodist Deputy General Secretary Rev Tevita Banivanua was mystified by the announcement which was announced by Commodore Bainimarama on a radio broadcast rather than formally conveyed to the church.

In Australia, members of Uniting Church Fijian congregations had committed to raise over $100 000 to send to Fiji with their choirs.

Around 100 choir members from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane were committed to go, many were already in Fiji when the announcement was made.

The new restrictions even prevented the Methodist Church from gathering to welcome their overseas visitors.

UnitingWorld National Director Rev Dr Kerry Enright said the latest action was deeply troubling for the life of the Church.

“The Military Government seems determined to cripple the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma which has followed a consistent approach of seeking negotiation and conversation with the government,” Dr Enright said.

“The Methodist Church has bent over backwards to meet the Government’s requirements imposed under the Public Emergency Regulations and to live within what I think are unfair and unreasonable bail conditions placed on them by the courts.”

Uniting Church in Australia ex-President Rev Gregor Henderson was already in Fiji as part of a World Council of Churches delegation and was to preach at the installation of Rev Ame Tugaue as President and Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu as General Secretary for another year.

The Military Government said the service could not go ahead because of a pending court case.

In a press conference at the Pacific Leaders Forum in Cairns in August, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd condemned the military treatment of Fijian Methodists.

“The fact that a leader of the Methodist church can have their door banged on in the middle of the night and be taken off by the authorities, whacked into jail, then charged with some trumped up offence under the emergency regulations put out by the military Government of Fiji is profoundly disturbing,” Mr Rudd said.

Dr Enright said, “We believe it is also a breach of human rights of freedom of religion and belief.”

UnitingWorld Associate Director (Pacific) Mr Bruce Mullan said under the Special Procedures of the UN Commission on Human Rights UnitingWorld will be preparing an urgent submission from the Uniting Church in Australia to ask them to investigate what has been happening.

“Through the Emergency Regulations the Military Government has consistently prohibited the Methodist Church from conducting its normal day-to-day activities,” he said.

Mr Mullan said the cancellation of the choir competition is not only a breach of human rights; it could be financially catastrophic for the Methodist Church.

It is even alleged that the Commodore has asked on the radio for people not to give money to the Methodist Church.

Mr Mullan said the Methodist Church has done everything in its power to avoid any possibility of public unrest in the streets.

“The Fiji government needs to be much more thoughtful about the consequences of its actions and how they can provoke deep feelings of anger, powerlessness and betrayal.”