The Pacific "is a region that displays many warm and strong expressions of peace," World Council of Churches general secretary the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit said in a speech to the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) 50th anniversary celebration held in Samoa this past week.
“The region and the ocean that unite you carry this wonderful name describing peace and tranquillity,’’ Dr Tveit said. “So much in your nature and your life gives signs of life with many characteristics of peace as abundance of life.”
At the same time, Tveit recognized challenges to this tranquillity in the form of the recent suppression of the church in Fiji, the desire for full independence in Tahiti, the legacy of nuclear tests in the region and the rising of sea levels and submerging of some islands because of climate change.
Tveit praised the PCC for its work during the past 50 years by bringing these challenges to the global church while encouraging them to continue being part of the regional and global ecumenical movement.
“You have brought the issues of peace and justice to global awareness as you have called for our common voice to say: No! to nuclear testing; No! to using this land of yours to do what somebody would not do at home because it is dangerous, even deadly; No! to developing any state of security or power based on weapons that have the potential to destroy all life on our planet: even the testing of them is putting human beings and nature at unacceptable risks.”
He also said that the formation of the PCC, which was started in 1961, was an important initiative that strengthened the “unity and accountability of the churches” and gave a “common witness to justice and peace.”
Dr Tveit’s visit to the region came at a time when the government of Fiji cancelled the annual meeting of the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma and then clamped down harder by prohibiting any church meetings except Sunday worship.
During the PCC meetings President Oscar Temaru, of Tahiti appealed to the churches for help in his country’s fight for independence from France.
“My country used to be free, and my people used to be in charge of their destiny. That changed in the 19th century after the European discoverers reached our shores,” Temaru said. “This suppression dates back to 1880, but continues to the present day.”
“The people of Maohi Nui have faced injustice for too long,” he said.
Tahiti is part of French Polynesia which is a protectorate of France.
“This is an on-going and unfinished story about colonization, and severe injustice, not only to particular individuals, but to everyone in Maohi Nui,” Tveit said in an interview with the Pacific Island News Agency.
“Justice and peace should be at the heart of all church ministries,” he said. “There is no peace without justice but equally there is no justice to be worked on without peace.”
Tveit said the WCC would work in solidarity with the Pacific Churches to raise awareness of the issues facing the Maohi Nui peoples.
While in Samoa, Tveit met with the Samoa Head of State, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, and leaders of the WCC member churches based in Samoa, the Methodist Church of Samoa and the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa.
The 50th anniversary celebrations were held from Wednesday 30 August through Sunday 4 September. The welcoming ceremony featured traditional dancing, the exchange of gifts, island music and feasting.
Speakers for the occasion included Tveit, pioneers of the ecumenical movement in the Pacific, government leaders from Samoa and the president of Tahiti.
The need for ever greater unity among Christians was recognized, as well as for a common engagement in dialogue with representatives of other religions.
“We are called to be one in Christ,’’ Tveit said toward the end of his speech. He said the call to be one was “in our solidarity with a suffering world... in Christ’s identification with victims of sin... in our faith that there is a possibility for change, for forgiveness, when there also is an open heart for remorse and repentance.”