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Hymns become latest revolt trigger in Fiji

Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer, may have penned his famous words "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer praise" almost 270 years ago, but it seems just singing these words today in strife-torn Fiji could destabilise a whole government.

The military government of interim prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama has agitated the normally harmonious voice of Fijian Methodists by attempting to stop the church’s conference from taking place in late August.

A Fiji court order on 23 July silenced two top Methodist Church ministers and paramount chief, Ro Teimumu Kepa. They were charged with defying the Public Emergency Regulation over the church’s annual conference which they had planned.

Ro Teimumu along with the church’s president, the Rev. Ame Tugaue, and its secretary general, the Rev. Tuikilakila Waqairatu, were granted bail after being held in custody for two days, and ordered to appear in court in three weeks. They had to surrender all their travel documents and are banned from having any meetings for 21 days, and are not allowed to be seen in public or to conduct anything that might be construed to be a meeting.

It is believed to be the first time a Fijian government has clashed so openly with the Methodist church, which many residents say has a reputation for moderation, conservative social values and harmony. About one third of Fiji’s almost one million people are Methodists.

In the days leading up to the conference it is normal for up to 10 000 singing Fijians to gather together for the nation’s biggest social gathering: the Fijian choir hymn singing contest. Fiji is as renowned for its choir singing as for its electrifying brand of rugby football.

Now church members say the government has also banned the choral feast, fearing it will lead to further political instability. But in a show of religious conviction and support for their church leaders that may have political reverberations for the fragile hold on power by Bainimarama, it is rumoured that many more choirs will make their way to Suva to sing their hymns of God’s power and might.

Sources have told Ecumenical News International that between 20 000 and 50 000 Fijian Methodists are planning to descend on the area around the national capital, Suva, to ensure the hymn singing – and the church conference – goes ahead.

"The tension is growing and there is a great deal of anger," an Australian church leader who has had regular contacts within Fiji, told ENI.

People are concerned that it will just take a clash between a couple of angry young people and the military for violence to erupt, he said.

"While there may be only two roads into the area around the airport and the military may think they can control the area, many are concerned that 50 000 people will be beyond their capacity and then they may resort to violence," he stated.

Meanwhile ENI has learned that Methodist church leaders are reported to be finding alternative leadership structures to deal with the muzzling of their president and general secretary, who are now under strict bail terms which prevent them from talking to more than one person at a time.

At this stage, the church is determined to hold its annual conference, which usually brings together up to 1000 church leaders for a week of discussion, celebration and singing. It is the supreme decision-making body for the Methodist church.

ENI has been told that many church members will still attend the location of the conference, even if the church leaders call the gathering off.

Radio New Zealand has reported that Fijian church leaders are afraid that their electronic communications – telephone and email – are being monitored by the government.

As the stand off between the church and the military grows, the national assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, which includes former Methodists, has pledged its "prayerful support" for the Fijian church, sending an envoy to Suva as a sign of support for the Methodists.

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