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PNG Highlands welcome new Bible, hope for peace

Former missionaries to the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea Revs Fred and Marcia Baker returned to the region in April to take part in the launch of the first Mendi language version of the New Testament.

The translation was sponsored by the United Church of PNG and the Bible Society. Fred says a number of Mendi people worked on the translation for many years. Although it was published in 2001, intertribal fighting held up its launch until now.

“While potentially the richest province in Papua New Guinea because of gold and oil reserves, the southern highlands have been in turmoil for years because of inter-tribal fighting. In the Mendi area fighting has flared between the Unjamap and Wogia clans.

“The school at Wogia was burnt down in 2000 and the Wogia clan then attacked the Unjamap people. They burned down part of the Mendi High School and several teachers’ houses and forced the closure of the Mendi Hospital. The United Church station at Tente became the battleground, as it was the traditional fighting ground between the two clans.”

The fighting took place close to Mendi township so all the people in the valley were badly affected. The town and airport were closed down for a time. Business was badly affected and government workers from other provinces returned home.

United Church Bishop Clarence Kapali and Roman Catholic Bishop Stephen Reichert helped restore peace. While Mendi is largely back to normal, Tari is still having trouble mainly due to one heavily armed group.

Though the Bakers’ visit was mainly to attend the launching of the Mendi translation of the New Testament, they say the chance to sit and talk with ministers, leaders and church members was more important.

“A special synod was meeting when we arrived so we talked with people from most circuits in the region. They face some serious issues,” Marcia says.

“We discussed corruption in the government and the Church, the economy and the possibility of a common currency in the Pacific, and Jane Kelsey’s statement that the involvement of Australian and New Zealand armed forces and police in PNG and the Solomon Islands is neo-colonialism. We were very impressed by the quality of the leadership and the wisdom of some of the older leaders.”

Marcia says it was a humbling experience to return to Yaken village, their home for five years.

“It was a thrill to meet some of the people we knew and remember those who have died over the last 30 years. It was an even greater thrill to see the children and grandchildren of those people using their many gifts in leadership in the Church.

“We could gain a lot from their strong growing Church if we were humble enough to learn. They too have much to learn, but we can learn together.”

The Church in PNG is young both because it has not yet been 54 years since the first missionaries entered the area and because of the age of the members and leaders. Better medical care has led to a population explosion and the high number of people less than 15 years old is putting pressure on the education system.

People from all churches and clans in the area took part in the celebrations marking the unveiling of the Mendi New Testament, including the clans whose battles had delayed the event.

Those attending watched a Mendi group’s re-enactment of contact with the first missionaries. The whole gathering enjoyed the drama immensely, particularly the children.

Representatives of various denominations in the area received copies of the New Testament, and Fred had the privilege of presenting a copy to each of the United Church circuits. The celebrations ended with a meal together and Marcia was asked to assist the Bishop in the cutting of the special cake.