The Voice Of The Churches
By David Robie © USP Journalism Programme
SUVA: Fiji's churches have made belated appeals this week for their parishioners to refuse support for rebel leader George Speight's insurrection and for the 31 hostages to be freed.
But leaders of the country's most influential church, the Methodist Church, have given mixed messages by condemning the attempted coup, yet apparently also giving tacit support for calls for a Christian state, and visiting Speight as well as the head of the military government, Commodore Frank Bainimarama.
The church also stepped in to provide a home for some 60 street kids from the capital of Suva - including seven young girls - at a refuge near the airport town of Nausori - and "they never took part in the looting".
Politicians' calls for a Christian state, a strong sentiment after the 1987 coups, have stirred two major religious groups representing the country's Hindu and Muslim minorities into appealing for "respect and tolerance" over their faith.
Two groups of senior ministers of the Methodist Church visited the rebels at the Parliament complex as well as the military barracks at Nabua at the weekend.
News media have reported that one of two cars involved at the Muanikau checkpoint shooting incident on Monday - which was claimed by rebels to be an "assassination" attempt on Speight but denied by the military - was owned by the Methodist Church and driven by a pastor.
The car was hit by two bullets in the boot and one tyre was shot out.
The president of the church, Rev Tomasi Kanailagi, declined to comment.
Last Friday, Methodist Church leaders visited the Parliament complex in an attempt to persuade Speight to release the hostages.
But secretary-general Dr Ilaitia Tuwere said people in the complex thought the Methodist Church had come to support Speight.
He is reportedly related to Speight's security chief Ilisoni Ligairi.
"There are so many rumours going around. We gave our support to Bainimarama to clear the air with our ordinary people," said Dr Tuwere, who has just resigned to take up a lecturing post at St John's Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand.
He said most of the demands sought by Speight and the rebels had been achieved.
"They did away with the elected government, removed the president and the constitution. If that is so, then why keep the hostages? Let's rebuild Fiji," he said.
Two major non-Christian religious organisations said all faiths must be respected and tolerated as this was the "bottom line for peace and harmony" in any country.
The Hindu-based Shri Sanatan Dharam Prathinidhi Sabha and the Fiji Muslim League, which represent most of the minority 380,000 Indo-Fijians, said that everyone should enjoy religious freedom and have an open mind.
Shri Sanatan Dharam Prathinidhi Sabha's national secretary Harish Sharma said the issue of Fiji being declared a Christian state had been fully debated in the past, but it had been agreed that the country would remain a secular state.
"Many Christians also support the argument of freedom of religion, as Christianity itself has more than one denomination," he said.
Fiji Muslim League general secretary Abdul Hakim said religious tolerance must remain in Fiji.
"Everyone should have the right to follow their own religion," he said.
In recent days, many churches have bought newspaper space for advertisements declaring their stand over Speight's rebellion.
The latest message came from the Christian Mission Fellowship of Fiji which said: "Fiji for the Fijians is not a biblical or a Christian slogan. This slogan may be right culturally, but it is wrong biblically."
The mission's president, Rev Suliasi Kurulo, said: "My plea to George Speight and his team is to please take courage and stand up as real men of faith, lay down your arms, release the hostages, and allow goodwill and common sense to prevail."
The Seventh Day Adventist Church also distanced itself from the coup with a full page advert. Speight and several of rebel leaders are members of the SDA.
"Individuals, who by their choice exercise perceived rights and by their own lifestyle and actions display an attitude and behaviour that clearly contradicts the teachings and standards of the church are an embarrassment to the cause of God," the advert said.
"These individuals ... are not above the law. We strongly maintain that the normal [course] of justice must prevail."
A group of 12 churches, including Baptists and Pentecostals, said: "The evils of May 19 are illegal and a violation of God's Word."
The advertisement called for reconciliation and restoration.
But perhaps the last word came from an ordinary Fijian lay Christian, Elizabeth Lenoa.
Writing in the Fiji Times, she acknowledged that captive former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, the country's first Indo-Fijian head of government, had faults.
"Nevertheless, despite Mahendra's shortfalls (sic), George makes up for it stunningly. Deference to elders and Fijian protocol was George at his best," she said sarcastically.
"This unknown player has manipulated our Fijian aristocracy, brought down a democratically elected government vetoed by our president and rejected a caretaker government.
"Never before has a man been able to negotiate his way through history , billing his success to lives at stake.
"Obviously, the taste of power is contagious and has dulled our indigenous minds to the fact that the reasons for the coup have been achieved but rejected.
"What's next is an illegal agenda, may even be a coup within a coup as the next chapter unsheaths the real tiger's claws."