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Sounds of Silence

Banned Methodist hymn sing indicates Fiji church-state conflict is worsening.

Fiji remained silent on a day that should have been filled with songs of praise.

The government canceled an annual Methodist choir festival scheduled for Saturday in Suva, the archipelago's capital. The decision to cancel the 160-year-old competition fueled tensions in the South Pacific nation, where the interim military-installed government has taken action against church leadership.

The Methodist Church is the largest religious group in Fiji, comprising one-third of the island's nearly one million inhabitants. An estimated 70 percent of Methodists are indigenous Fijians, according to Kerry Enright, a pastor in Australia's Uniting Church.

"We believe the Fijian government is out to cripple the Methodist church in Fiji," Enright said in an interview with Radio Australia's Pacific Beat.

Meanwhile, the government has shown support for the politically connected New Methodist Church by approving a crusade at a 20,000-seat national sports stadium for the newly created rival denomination, according to The Australian.

Observers say the government's restrictive attitude toward the Methodist Church stems from concerns that the ethnic Fijian-dominated church could destabilize the current regime and its efforts to remove employment and electoral protections for indigenous Fijians from island law and life.

Established by a military coup in 2006 that drew Methodist condemnation, the government of military commander Frank Bainimarama claims it has seized power because it is not willing to wait for public sentiment or political will to shift before making sweeping changes that remove race considerations from much of public life. Past coups have occurred amid plans to expand rights for ethnic Indian Fijians.

"A radical change needs to be brought in. And radical change cannot be brought in by some weak organization," said Bainimarama in an interview with Australian public broadcaster SBS. "No one can bring those changes into being except the military here, now. … We are not elected. We don't have to please the indigenous community. … We do what is good for the nation irrespective of your color, irrespective of your religion, irrespective of your creed."

Bainimarama promised in 2006 that democratic elections would be held in 2009. Instead, in April his administration abolished Fiji's 1997 constitution, postponed elections until 2014, and established emergency rules which curtailed free speech.

In July, the government banned the Methodist annual conference and annual choir festival, a national event that usually draws tens of thousands. Regional contests were to be held in place of the full festival, but the government later revoked permits for those contests as well as for an induction service for Methodist office-bearers in Fiji, according to Enright.

Australia News Network reported that church leaders, including Methodist president Ame Tugaue and general secretary Akuila Waqairatu, were arrested on charges of breaching Public Emergency Regulations for participating in a church standing committee meeting that had not been approved by the government. They pled not guilty and were later released on bail, banned from preaching or speaking in public.

"[This is] making life almost impossible for a church whose spiritual life-blood is based on gathering together," the British Methodist Church said in an August statement. The Fijian Methodist ministers will next face a pre-trial hearing September 24, followed by a full trial November 19, according to The Australian.

Calls made to Methodist churches in Fiji, including Rukunibaka Methodist Church, Narere Methodist Church, and Lawaqa Methodist Church, were not returned.

This suppression of religious leaders has left many concerned, according to Glyn Carpenter, chairman of the New Zealand-based South Pacific Evangelical Alliance.

"The whole situation in Fiji is a huge concern to the church in New Zealand," said Carpenter. "The situation is very serious and we are very concerned about the instability."

Carpenter was hopeful that the faith of Fijians would grow.

"When something happens, that causes Christians to stand and it causes revival," he said. "It will cause some people to retreat and others to take the path of least resistance, and it will cause some to stand up more boldly to speak out about the message of the kingdom of God."

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today posted an earlier article on the tension in Fiji.

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