Fiji military ruler out of tune with harmonious Methodists

By Ecumenical News International
July 30, 2009

Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer, may have penned his famous words "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise" almost 270 years ago, but it seems just singing these words today in strife-torn Fiji could destabilise a whole government - writes Kim Cain.

The military government of the interim Prime Minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama has agitated the normally harmonious voice of Fijian Methodists by attempting to stop the church's conference from taking place in late August.

A Fiji court order on 23 July 2009 silenced two top Methodist Church ministers and paramount chief, Ro Teimumu Kepa. They were charged with defying the Public Emergency Regulation over the church's annual conference which they had planned.

Ro Teimumu, along with the church's president, the Rev Ame Tugaue, and its Secretary General, the Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu, were granted bail after being held in custody for two days and ordered to appear in court in three weeks. They had to surrender all their travel documents, are banned from having any meetings for 21 days and are not allowed to be seen in public or to conduct anything that might be construed to be a meeting.

It is believed to be the first time a Fijian government has clashed so openly with the Methodist church, which many residents say has a reputation for moderation, conservative social values and harmony. About one third of Fiji's almost one million people are Methodists.

In the days leading up to the conference it is normal for up to 10,000 singing Fijians to gather together for the nation's biggest social gathering: the Fijian choir hymn singing contest. Fiji is as renowned for its choir singing as for its electrifying brand of rugby football.

Now church members say the government has also banned the choral feast, fearing it will lead to further political instability. But in a show of religious conviction and support for their church leaders that may have political reverberations for the fragile hold on power by Bainimarama, it is rumoured that many more choirs will make their way to Suva to sing their hymns of God's power and might.

Sources have told Ecumenical News International that between 20,000 and 50,000 Fijian Methodists are planning to descend on the area around the national capital, Suva, to ensure the hymn singing - and the church conference - goes ahead.

"The tension is growing and there is a great deal of anger," an Australian church leader who has had regular contacts within Fiji, told ENI.

People are concerned that it will just take a clash between a couple of angry young people and the military for violence to erupt, he said.

"While there may be only two roads into the area around the airport and the military may think they can control the area, many are concerned that 50,000 people will be beyond their capacity and then they may resort to violence," he stated.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

Keywords:methodist | hymns | fiji
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