Fiji government again cancels Methodist conference

Wellington, New Zealand, August 25 (ENInews)--The annual conference of
Fiji's Methodist Church, due to start 23 August, was cancelled by Fiji's
military government for the third consecutive year after church leaders defied a
government directive to step down from their positions. 

Fiji's Land Force Commander Colonel Mosese Tikoitoga, also directed that
no Methodist Church minister be allowed to leave the country, and banned
permits under the Public Emergency Regulation for all official Methodist
Church meetings. There are concerns that the ban will lead to the collapse of
the Methodist church administration and severely affect funding. 

Michael King, World Church Relationships Team Leader for the Methodist
Church in Britain, said the ban was a "massive setback" in church/state
relations, given that it seemed that relationships had improved and the political
situation had eased. 

"If the conference had been allowed to go ahead, there would have been a
normal and constitutional change in church leadership and a sense of
returning to normality," he commented in a news release on the British church's
website. About 1,000 delegates who had already arrived in Fiji were told to
go home.

Tikoitoga told the news website Fijilive that Methodist church President
Ame Tugauwe and General Secretary Tuikilakila Waqairatu should have stepped
down from their positions ahead of the conference as they were charged
earlier with breaching emergency laws. "They refused to accept that
explanation. They maintained that a person is innocent until proven guilty,''
Tikoitoga said, adding that a meeting with church officials "ended ... with no
clear direction so we cancelled the [conference] altogether."

Church members were charged with attending an unauthorized meeting held in
April 2009 and were held for questioning by police in July that year. In
September last year, the Fijian Government dropped most of the charges
against church leaders.

Earlier this month, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of the
Pacific Island nation, had lifted a ban on the conference until 2014, on the
condition that each conference would be no longer than three days, and the
two leaders would not speak. Church executives attempted to meet government
officials on 22 August to decide who would chair conference meetings. But
no government official attended so the executives decided that Tugauwe would
chair meetings.

The Methodist Church is the main faith for indigenous Fijians, and was
aligned to the government overthrown in a 2006 bloodless coup. Since the coup,
Fiji has suspended the constitution, detained opponents and suppressed
freedom of speech. Meanwhile the church cancelled a news conference which was
to be held 25 August.

David Crampton

David Crampton writes for Ecumenical News International.

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