May 2009

Pacific churches in solidarity with people of Fiji

A degree of irony surrounded this year’s annual gathering of Pacific Methodist and Uniting Church leaders.

The themes of the meeting were ‘Church and State’ and ‘Relations with Other Faiths’, and it took place in Fiji last month just after prime minister Commodore Frank Banimarama was removed from office and then restored to power and the government of Fiji was exerting greater political pressure on the media.

Each year the Methodist Consultative Council of the Pacific (MCCP) brings together the heads of the Methodist Churches of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand and the Uniting Churches of the Solomon Islands, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

Last year the Methodist Church in Fiji was to host the MCCP but the gathering was cancelled because of the political situation. This year the Fijian Methodists decided to proceed with the conference despite a climate of uncertainty.

Methodist Church of NZ president Rev Jill van de Geer and vice president Ron Gibson were among those who attended the event, which was held at Centennial Church in Suva, April 14-16.

Ron and Jill say on the surface everything appears to be normal in Fiji. There is no major police presence on the streets and the army is not visible at all. Tourists are still visiting the country though perhaps in smaller numbers. However, the newspapers do not report on any political developments and are full of bland material.

"While people are allowed to attend church in Fiji, it is not permitted to have other large gatherings or conferences," Jill says.

"When we first arrived at Centennial Church we were initially informed the meeting was not to go ahead. The Fijian Church leaders appealed and pointed out that all those who were to attend had already arrived. It appeared that a compromise was reached and we were allowed to proceed in the presence of a government observer."

Jill says the Fijian Methodist Church is quite open about its disagreement with the current government. The Church believes the government is damaging the economy, and unemployment and poverty are increasing as a result. Education is suffering as some parents cannot afford to pay school fees.

"During Lent the Church led nation-wide fasting and prayers for the country, and it asked people to maintain that spiritual focus after Lent.

"Church leaders expressed a sense that the country is living in an in-between time. The old is going and something new is coming but the interim period is a time of crisis. People are suffering in silence and seeking a peaceful solution.

"The Fijian Church is maintaining a critical distance from the government so that it can critique what is going on. It focuses on truth and justice," Jill says.

Jill and Ron say the main thing the MCCP conference achieved was to convey a sense of solidarity to the people of Fiji and the Fijian Methodist Church.

"It was a very significant for the people of Fiji to have representatives of the region’s Churches there. We were able to offer the Church and Fijians in general our solidarity and pastoral support.

"It was absolutely clear that it was worth going there to express our care and to make a statement of support," Ron says.

During the MCCP’s business sessions delegates reported on the major issues facing their churches.

Solomon Islands and PNG both reported that the Church is increasing its educational programmes in response to the growing presence of HIV/AIDS. The United Church in Solomon Islands is still working to address economic difficulties caused by years of ethnic conflict and natural disasters. It is working through women’s organisations and health institutes to promote family planning and stop the growing number of unwanted pregnancies.

The Uniting Church in Australia reported that it has consolidated its overseas aid and international mission work in a single entity called UnitingWorld. UnitingWorld will be responsible for solidarity work with other churches, relief and development work, and peacemaking.

One of its priorities will be trade justice. In particular it will be monitoring the PACER Plus round of trade negotiations. PACER stands for Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations and it commits the governments of the Pacific to enter into free trade talks by 2011.

The Australian Church is concerned the governments of Australia and New Zealand are investing to persuade Pacific officials to accept a free trade approach that will not be in their countries’ interests. The Church is concerned unrestrained free trade will harm the poor and vulnerable.

In regards to both themes of the conference the Pacific churches have a variety of experiences and responses. In some countries, such as the Solomon Islands, PNG, and Tonga, the Church has close links to the government and plays an important role in education. By contrast, in NZ and Australia the separation of Church and state is a fundamental principle.

In regards to interfaith relations, Jill said the most moving presentation came from Rev James Bhagwan of the Indian division of the Fijian Methodist Church. Many Indian Christians are members of families in which members belong to other religions, and this can add a difficult dimension to their faith journey.

The NZ and Australian churches reported on their interfaith dialogues with Jews, Muslims and others, whereas churches with more conservative theological perspectives emphasised the importance of Christians offering salvation through Jesus Christ to people of other faiths.