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Minute on the situation facing the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma

02 September 2009

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

1. In December 2006 the elected government of Fiji, a Pacific island nation of some 920,000 people, was overthrown in a military coup and an “interim government” was installed, with the head of the military, Commodore Frank Bainimarama serving as prime minister. In April 2009 the Fiji Court of Appeal declared that the coup was illegal. Within days the interim government abrogated the national constitution, dismissed the judiciary, brought in censorship of the media and announced public emergency regulations, which, among other things, require government permits to be issued for meetings to be held, including church meetings.

2. The population of Fiji consists of two main groups - indigenous Fijians, around 55% of the population, and Indian Fijians who are descended from labourers brought from India in the 19th century, around 42% of the population. The vast majority of indigenous Fijians are Christian (over 95%) and Christianity is very much part of indigenous Fijian culture, especially through the Methodist church. The Indian Fijians are mostly Hindu (28% of the overall population) or Muslim (6%).

3. Almost two-thirds of indigenous Fijians belong to the Methodist church, a World Council of Churches (WCC) member church. Overall around 35% of Fijians are Methodists (327,000 members, including some Indian Fijians). The Roman Catholic Church is the second largest with around 60,000 members. The Anglican Church, with around 8,000 members, is the only other WCC member church in Fiji.

4. Military coups also took place in 1987 and 2000. These earlier coups were regarded as supportive of the political interests of the indigenous Fijians, and it is generally perceived that the Methodist church, with its strong indigenous membership, supported these coups. The 2006 coup, however, is perceived as favouring the Indian Fijian population, and the interim government has significantly diminished the place of traditional Fijian culture in Fiji’s national life. One example is that the role of the previously very powerful Council of Chiefs has been terminated by the interim government.

5. Immediately after the 2006 coup, the Methodist church issued statements deploring the coup and protesting the illegality of the interim government. Many smaller churches joined the Methodists in publicly stating this view, but it is noted with regret that there is little communication between the Methodist, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches at present. The Methodist church has maintained its public stance on the illegality of the interim government since 2006. The church has therefore refused to take part in processes initiated by the interim government for community participation in planning for the future of Fiji. While this policy of the church is understandable and perfectly valid, it means the church has unfortunately sidelined itself from processes which may well have a large influence on the nature of Fiji in the future

6. Since May 2009, the interim government has taken these actions against the Methodist church:

  • banned the church from holding its annual 2009 conference, the chief governing body of the church (and the ban may stay in place until after the planned return to democracy in 2014);

  • banned the annual choir festival of the church, which is held in association with the conference and which assists in the annual raising of funds for the life and mission of the church;

  • arrested and charged nine Methodist leaders, including the president and general secretary, with breaches of the emergency regulations; all nine have been released on bail, with strict conditions as to what they can and cannot do, including the surrender of their passports;

  • ordered the church not to hold a service of induction of its president and general secretary, scheduled to take place on 23 August;

  • banned the weekly radio program of the Methodist church and the weekly radio program conducted by the Methodist general secretary.

7. In August 2009 the WCC arranged for a team of three church leaders from neighbouring countries to visit Fiji, particularly to express solidarity and support for the Methodist church at this time. The WCC records its gratitude to the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) for the PCCs organizational assistance and hospitality generously provided to the WCC team. The team met with leaders of the Methodist church and participated in worship in Centenary Church, Suva, on 23 August. The team also met with leaders of the PCC, with Anglican Bishop Apimeleki Qiliho, with several non-governmental organizations, and with Prime Minister Bainimarama. The prime minister asserts strongly that among the leaders of the Methodist church there are ethno-nationalists whom he regards more as politicians than church leaders, and that it is the ethno-nationalist political aspirations and actions of these leaders that have caused his government to act against the church. The team was pleased to receive an assurance from the prime minister that the interim government is open to dialogue with the Methodist church.

8. There is a vast diversity of opinion among Fijians concerning the interim government. Viewpoints range from strong support for the interim government, especially for its actions towards a more just multiracial and multi-faith society, to outright opposition to the interim government and all it appears to stand for. Some are concerned that while the interim government states it plans a return to democracy in 2014, that date might be further extended and Fiji might be ruled in the long term by a military dictatorship or military junta. These different viewpoints are present also within the membership of the Methodist church.

9. The Methodist church has a firm commitment not to respond to the interim government’s actions in any way that might lead to public protests against the government and to possible violence and bloodshed. The church wishes dearly to find a peaceful resolution of the difficulties they face. The church is open to discussions with the interim government, with or without the assistance of a mediator, and is open to reviewing its policy of non-participation in community and government processes considering the future of Fiji.

The central committee of the WCC, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, 26 August - 2 September 2009, therefore:

A. Expresses deep concern at the actions taken by the interim government of Fiji against the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma.

B. Commends the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma for its careful and measured response to the actions taken against the church by the interim government of Fiji.

C. Encourages the Pacific Conference of Churches to facilitate increased dialogue among the churches in Fiji, especially between the Methodist, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

D. Urges the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma to seek opportunity to engage in dialogue with the interim government.

E. Encourages the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, while maintaining its stand on the illegality of the interim government, to consider participating in community and government processes which give consideration to the future of Fiji’s political, economic, social and inter-religious life.

F. Requests the WCC general secretary to respond promptly to any requests and suggestions from Fijian churches for possible further WCC actions in support of the church in Fiji.

G. Calls upon WCC member churches to pray for the nation and people of Fiji, that a peaceful return to democracy and the rule of law, and a vibrant and peaceful multiracial and multi-faith community, will emerge as soon as possible.

 

The following prayer is offered as a resource to enable the churches’ engagement with the issue articulated above:

God of peace, we pray for the nation and people of Fiji.
Accompany the churches and the government as they
seek fresh ways of building a Fiji committed to freedom,
justice and peace, and to positive multiracial and
multi-faith relationships. In the name of Christ, Amen.