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Fiji: Tension rises between government and Methodist Church

The months-long standoff between Fiji’s government and the country’s largest Christian denomination became more heated last week when police arrested, held and later charged seven Methodist Church officials and a high-ranking chief for “incitement” and infringing on emergency rules regarding meetings.

The government alleges that Rewa High Chief Ro Teimumu Kepa broke meeting rules when she met with Methodist church leaders to plan its annual two-week conference that the government has refused to issue a permit. The conference was scheduled to take place near the end of August in her province of Rewa, a poor, mostly rural area not far from the capital Suva. It brings in tens of thousands of members, includes choir competitions and provides a substantial amount of fundraising for the church.

The government denied a permit for this year’s conference because leaders refused to not include two of its former presidents, Manasa Lasaro and Tomasi Kanailagi, and remove any political discussions from its agenda.
Detractors
of both men accuse them of mixing ethno-nationalist politics and religion.

Both men also attended the alleged planning meeting and were arrested. Judges released all eight people on $500 bail and (for some) forfeiture of travel documents. They will reappear in court August 13.

The predominately indigenous Fijian Methodist church, which nearly one-third of the country's population belongs, was closely aligned with the government of Laisenia Qarase, which ruled from 2001 until it was overthrown in December 2006 by Commodore Frank Bainimarama for what he called corrupt and racist rule that benefited indigenous Fijians at the expense of other ethnic groups. It was Fiji’s fourth military coup since 1987.

After a court ruled in April the 2006 takeover was illegal, Fiji’s president annulled the country’s constitution, fired the entire judiciary and appointed Frank Bainimarama to a five-year term before elections will be held. The government then passed a series of Public Emergency Regulations, controlling the media and limiting assembly.

Insaafi, writing in Raw Fiji News, says the arrests are a a case against religious freedom.

The issue is not so much that a high chief has been apprehended at midnight and taken for questioning without any justfication.
It is more about the moral repugnance and abomination of denial of very basic tenets of natural justice to a decent citizen of fiji whose rights to human freedom , dignity and freedom of speech are enshrined in not only the abbrogated constitution but also in the preamble to the Charter tha the regime has adopted as its mantra.
It is also about the traditional respect that we have for all the mothers, sisters and citisens of our country.
Religious freedoms form the cornestone of all civilised societies and the suppression of the Methodists in Fiji cannot and should not be condoned by those who have any respect for their own rights and religions.
It is time for all the religious groups to show total solidarity with the Methodists.

Intelligentsiya argues by picking a fight with the powerful Methodist church, the military government may soon meet its match.

The Methodist Church remains steadfast and refuses to budge on their intent to hold their conference.

There could be wave after wave of believers willing to face persecution and oppression for the Lord's work (as is foretold in the good book). This time Bainimarama has picked a fight with the wrong foe – God.

Let's see how many methodists the military can round up and charge with incitement, before they collapse in exhaustion or run out of holding capacity.

However, an anonymous comment in the above post criticizes Church leadership.

As a Christian, I am sick and tired of publicity hungry chiefs seeking political notoriety, without dealing with what's important, standing amongst distracting homosexual looking Kanailagi crying out as victims of what they created.

Impure intentions of the embittered and the desperate, missing what once was which many did not favor, feeling rebuffed by a government who professed to represent us, the common average hardworking invisible people of Fiji.

Real Fiji News contends this is issue is political and not religious.

We should be reminded that only a hand full of Methodists have a political agenda, which consequently is destroying the religious values for the remainder of the 300,000 followers.
This is not about religion its about POLITICS. The Government is NOT against the Methodists, its against the POLITICS, lets be constantly reminded of that. The SDL party has freely admitted it has a clear strategy with regards to the Methodist church and the current government.

For a few bloggers, however, the arrests and charges do not represent a fight between the government and the Methodist church; rather, it is a battle against Rewa High Chief Ro Teimumu Kepa, a practicing Catholic who was Minister of Education in the SDL-led Qarase government.

During her two-day captivity, her family released a video on You Tube hoping to sidestep Fiji’s media censorship. In the video, family members claim Ro Teimumu’s “human rights and indigineous rights has been grossly violated by this illegal government currently running the country.”

What makes this issue so complicated – and potentially destabilizing – is it intersects so many fault lines within indigenous Fijian society: Namely, the role religion plays in the public sphere and the power indigenous chiefs have in politics. Some in Fiji are more than willing for chiefs and church leaders to entertain political aspirations.

Others point out that there is no place for either in modern society. They argue Fiji is a multi-ethnic and poly-religious nation – with other ethnic groups, especially ethnic Indians, making up nearly 40 percent of the country’s population and non-Christian worshippers accounting for more than 30 percent of those who live in Fiji.

Jenny Hayward-Jones, blogging at the Lowy Interpreter, argues the arrests were a desperate move by the government.

Yesterday's arrests in Fiji of the leadership of the Methodist Church and a female paramount chief are a dramatic development in Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama’s quest to increase his control over the country. Whether they will be the trigger for the ultimate demise of his leadership, or civil unrest, or whether they are a sign of the permanent entrenchment of a military dictatorship remains to be seen.

The arrests are a clear threat to two key pillars of Fiji society – the Methodist Church and the Chiefly System – and represent the most significant provocation from Bainimarama to civil society in Fiji since the 2006 coup. It’s a risky and desperate move from a leader who claims to understand the ‘Pacific Way’.

Laminar Flow, writing in Stuck in Fiji M.U.D., asserts the so-called pillars no longer have a pull on anyone in the country.

The proverbial pillars of Fiji's society, which Jones raised in her latest blog posting, was an emotional appeal for incitement. It may have escaped the mind of Jones, that those dual pillars she had highlighted; are so out of touch of reality that their influence on Fiji's populace has dwindled to a such a pathetic degree that, their appeal is actually anachronistic-oblivious to the changing demographics of Fiji's modern society.
Both pillars are no longer load bearing entities in politics, as they once were. Currently both bedfellows flaunt their roles in public, but the actual process of reducing their Chiefly/Religious footprint in Fiji politics would neither dent nor damage, the structural integrity of the progressing nation.

Nasima, writing in the Soli Vakasama blogsite, salutes a “true chief” like Ro Teimumu for defending her people.

A true chief will acknowledge that without his/her people, they are nothing. Therefore his/her service will always be to the people first and self later. A chief who respect his people will get respect in return and a true chief will readily acknowledge that people’s respect should never be taken for granted to justify discontinuing his respect for his people. A true chief will always have the welfare of his people close to his heart.
The above is rarely witnessed nowadays because true Fijians chiefs are an endangered species. Sadly, there are not many of them around and the Fijian people, as a unique race on the face of this earth, are being led to a slow death. Wannabe chiefs are more concerned with the figure in their bank account than with the livelihood of their people.
Many will highlight the fact that a woman is standing up in the face of danger to fight for what she believe in because of the Christian faith gifted to her and her people by her forefathers. What many will fail to realise is that regardless of whether it is a man or a woman, it takes a true blue blood to flow in your veins to be able counter head-on the dangers, the likes of which is descending upon the Fijian people.

Fiji: The Way It Was, Is and Can Be points out “Ro Teimumu is a chief but she is also a politician.”

My interpretation is that her primary purpose is to use the Conference as a means to create unrest and rally mass Fijian support for a political cause she shares with extreme Fijian nationalists. That is, to overthrow the Bainimarama government and see the return of a government that puts chiefly, and Fijian elite rights and privileges, ahead of those of other citizens, including those of ordinary Fijians. This is not because she is an unfeeling person but rather, I suspect, because she believes chiefs are born to rule, and that Fiji, first and foremost, must be for Fijians.

But Some traction, some gain, must come from the past three years. I say this with no disrespect for Ro Teimumu or the Fijian chiefly system. But in the modern, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state of Fiji, Fijian chiefs and national politics — and religion and politics — should be kept apart, and the concepts of vanua, lotu and matanitu [Fijian culture, Christian church and government], as they apply to the 21st century, need to be re-thought. The prostrate bodies of slaves should no longer be used as rollers to launch Ro Teimumu's or anyone else's waqa drua. Over the next few weeks ordinary Fijians should be particularly wary of such manipulation by chiefs, church and the SDL.

From the Blog: Waqa Drua = Large double-hulled canoes, some as long as 30 metres, capable of carrying up to 200 people, and faster than contemporary European ships.

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