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Fiji church and state story!

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  • Robert Baty
    The Sydney Morning Herald An unholy alliance of church and state PAUL MCGEOUGH IN SUVA November 29, 2009 When Fiji s regime brought the Methodist Church under
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 29, 2009
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      The Sydney Morning Herald

      An unholy alliance of church and state

      PAUL MCGEOUGH IN SUVA
      November 29, 2009

      When Fiji's regime brought the Methodist Church under its thumb, a fundamentalist rival joined forces with the police.

      Pastor Atu Vulaono was the cannon that backfired, revealing the Fiji regime at its tin-pot best.

      In a double-act with Esala Teleni, his brother-in-law and the Police Commissioner, the evangelist's ''Souls to Jesus'' crusade was given wings as a strategy to supplant the power of the Methodist Church - the denomination into which most indigenous Fijians are born.

      Rolling his eyes to the heavens before fervent crowds at venues such as Suva's National Gymnasium, Vulaono might have been just any God-botherer. But funded by the Police Department and co-opted to spearhead a spiritual campaign against crime, the evangelist flew too close to the Fiji sun.

      > "It became too disruptive
      > an influence,"

      says Netani Rika, editor-in-chief of The Fiji Times.

      > "First it was a problem in the police
      > force and then among indigenous
      > Fijians, for whom religion is very
      > important. So [Fiji's leader Frank
      > Bainimarama] sat on them, because
      > if they were allowed to continue to
      > ridicule the other denominations,
      > there was going to be trouble."

      Indo-Fijians were rattled because the ascent Vulaono's New Methodist Church coincided with calls for Fiji to be declared a Christian state in which only ''good Christians'' could be appointed to government.

      > "The New Methodists have a right
      > to exist under the Declaration of
      > Human Rights,"

      a senior lay Methodist acknowledges.

      > "But to be supported by the
      > Government? That's a different
      > question,"

      says Rika.

      Vulaono claimed to have more than 70 congregations across the islands and was booking a 20,000-capacity stadium in Suva for his rallies.

      In tandem, the Police Commissioner ordered his officers to dance in uniform on Vulaono's stage. Observers in Suva claim that Teleni's support for Vulaono contributed to a $F9 million blow-out in last year's police budget.

      In April rank-and-file police and senior officers were stunned when ordered to attend a car-park rally where a New Methodist preacher harangued them on the ways of Jesus Christ. Hindu and Muslim Indo-Fijians were made to attend, too - but had to listen to the preacher's use of the indigenous Fijian language and his implicit rejection of their faith and culture.

      Officers were forced to attend the New Methodist crusades - where they were made to sing and dance in uniform on the stage.

      > "Teleni called all Indo-Fijian
      > officers to a meeting and told
      > them if they did not like what
      > was happening, they could
      > get f---ed,''

      an observer told The Sun-Herald.

      A combined police-New-Methodist, law-and-order campaign took to the streets of the capital, blaring out a message that turning to Christ was the way to deal with crime.

      The police lectured night-clubbers, urging them to repent. Couples frequenting Lovers' Land, on Suva's waterfront, were ordered not to embrace in public - and sent to their separate homes.

      Prostitutes who did not heed police warnings to get off the streets were summarily trucked to a bridge over an ocean inlet where they were ordered to make the six-metre leap into the water.

      But, according to several of the women, Christian idealism sometimes broke down at this point - they were made to service the arresting officers and had their purses and mobile phones stolen.

      Some of the prostitutes were warned that if they were caught again, they would be made to jump from a higher bridge.

      Others had their heads shaved. Some were made to run alongside police vehicles in Suva's streets. Under police escort, they also had to attend Vulaono's Sunday afternoon crusades. A human-rights activist said the Fiji courts were pressuring women who were victims of domestic violence to reconcile with their husbands.

      Peni Moore, of the Women's Action for Change lobby, said much of the ill-treatment of prostitutes stopped after she complained to Bainimarama about the commissioner's "biblical bullxxxx".

      In the meantime, the traditional Methodist Church was being neutered by the regime - and winning little support for its plight from other denominations.

      Catholic priest Father Kevin Barr dissects the traditional Methodist Church as a force of darkness that deserved the treatment dealt to it by the regime -

      > "the message to its top people
      > was that they should get lost''.

      > "At the leadership level, the
      > Methodist Church contains an
      > explosive mix of fundamentalist
      > Christianity and ethnic [indigenous
      > Fijian] nationalism,"

      he says.

      Church sources say the phones of its leaders are tapped; their emails are intercepted; and they are followed by plainclothes officers as they move around Suva and the islands. Their passports have been confiscated, blocking travel to international religious forums. They are not allowed to meet with more than two people at any one time.

      The Methodists' annual conference was outlawed; their traditional fund-raising was forced to a halt; and even a gathering as innocent as their national choir competition was deemed a likely hotbed of subversiveness - and blackballed. Seven senior Methodists, including the church president, the Reverend Ame Tugaue, and its general secretary, the Reverend Tuikilakila Warairatu, are awaiting trial on spurious charges after they were rounded up in April.

      They were detained overnight, interrogated and accused of being political activists.

      > "They were treated as nobodies
      > and verbally abused, as senior
      > officials tried to find out the extent
      > to which the church intended to
      > resist the regime,"

      an associate says.

      Asked about the church's seemingly meek compliance with regime edicts, the lay Methodist explains:

      > "We're giving meaning to the biblical
      > message of Christ - give the shirt
      > from your back to whoever wants it;
      > if they say walk a mile, we'll walk two
      > miles.

      > Our leaders can't speak out, even in
      > church, because members of the
      > military are in the congregation and
      > we don't know who comes to pray
      > and who comes to spy.

      > The message to us was they'll not
      > be stopped. Forget morality, law
      > and order and human rights - might
      > is right."

      At the time of the Methodist arrests, a government spokesman said the church should concentrate on the spiritual needs of its congregation rather than

      > "promoting the ambitions of a
      > few politically minded individuals".

      Ultimately the police-led New Methodist crusade became too embarrassing for the regime.

      Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum saw himself as a sensitive new-age guy, so Teleni had to be hauled in, The Sun-Herald was told.

      There was no public announcement.

      > "The closest to an official
      > announcement was a letter from
      > the chief censor to editors, ordering
      > them to cease broadcasting the
      > New Methodists' paid programs on
      > the grounds that they had become
      > a security risk,"

      a media source says.

      Says Barr of the police crusade:

      > "It was a stupid thing."

      The priest dismisses Vulaono as something of a charlatan -

      > "he roars and yells at sinners; to
      > hear him preach is out of this world.
      > People were upset as much by the
      > influence he was gaining over the
      > police and young people as by the
      > contradiction of Frank's claim to want
      > a multi-religious society, and here was
      > this splinter group trying to dominate
      > the country.

      > Then, suddenly, it was over. I spoke
      > to the PM's secretary - he waved his
      > hand and said, 'Finished.'"

      There are doubts that Vulaono ever attended Bible school, much less had any formal training as a church minister, and he is a target of ridicule in the blogs that thrive in Fiji despite, and because of, the regime's censorship of the media.

      > "The joke around town,"

      according to a women's rights activist,

      > "is that Frank shut Pastor Vulaono
      > down, [because] he had a problem
      > with the whole Christian thing - he
      > just didn't like seeing the preacher
      > become so powerful."

      Just as the traditional Methodists got the regime message, it seems Vulaono did, too.

      At last Sunday afternoon's Souls to Jesus gathering at the National Stadium, the crowd of about 2000 was pumped - swaying, dancing, gyrating; eyes closed; a finger pointed to heaven.

      A warm-up relay of preachers, which included Vulaono's daughter, whipped them into a frenzy. But as the headline act, Vulaono was restrained, shuffling to and from the lectern, but not seeming to engage the crowd.

      He did not respond to telephone messages left by The Sun-Herald over a 10-day period.

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