Nine Methodist Church leaders appeared in court in Fiji yesterday, pleading not guilty to charges of breaching Public Emergency Regulations. They have been released on bail but are forbidden to preach, speak in public or meet with each other.
The nine leaders, including the Church’s president, the Rev Ame Tugaue, and General Secretary, the Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu, will face a full hearing on 24th September.
The military regime in Fiji is thought to fear the influence of the Methodist Church in campaigning for democracy and human rights. Last month the Church agreed to cancel this year’s Methodist Conference, following demands from the government.
Negotiations are proceeding with the police concerning an administrative meeting planned for 31st August. The government insists that only ordained ministers (other than the arrested leaders) should be allowed to attend, but the Church does not want to exclude lay people.
The nine leaders have been banned from speaking for the last three weeks, and are facing severe restrictions on their movements. The Methodist Church says this makes life extremely difficult as their spiritual life-blood is based on gathering together.
The Church’s solicitor is in negotiation with the police and the Fijian Government to relax the conditions for the next bail period.
The Fijian Methodist Church’s deputy general secretary, the Rev Tevita Bainavanua, expressed his frustration this morning during a monitored phone call to Britain saying, “We can talk about Jerusalem and Galilee but not Fiji!”
He insisted that “We are telling our people not to do anything to worsen the situation.”
His Church has received support and encouragement from Methodist Churches and others around the world.
“It is clear that the military government is active in the life of the courts,” said Steve Pearce, World Church Partnership Coordinator for the Methodist Church in Britain, “Where police actions contradict court decisions, the courts are reluctant to assert themselves”.
He added that “Negotiation and dialogue are difficult in these circumstances but the Church is clear in its wish to avoid confrontation.”
The Church says it continues to work and worship despite the repressive situation. Traditional choir festivals will go ahead as planned, beginning on 22nd August, although no national festivals will take place.
The Methodist Church is the largest faith group in Fiji and is said to exercise significant influence.