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Analysis: Churches Should be Apolitical, Members Should be Free to Choose which Party to Support

The controversy over the Methodist Church has reignited the issue of church versus politics. Should the church be involved in politics? The separation of State and Church is now part
26 Apr 2017 13:04
Analysis: Churches Should be Apolitical, Members Should be Free to Choose which Party to Support
The late Reverend Manasa Lasaro (right), and Reverend Tevita Banivanua.

The controversy over the Methodist Church has reignited the issue of church versus politics.

Should the church be involved in politics?

The separation of State and Church is now part of the Fijian lexicon. It’s enshrined in Section 4 on Secular State of our Constitution.

In the spirit of this provision, no church or religion takes precedence over another.

All religions are free to exercise their faith as long as they don’t impose it on others.

The call therefore, by a Methodist Church group, for Fiji to be made a Christian state is unconstitutional. It runs against the grain of a Secular State.

This is not the first time the call to make Fiji a Christian state has been heard. It had its origin in the wake of the first military coup led by Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987.

Radical Methodist ministers led by the late Reverend Manasa Lasaro gave Mr Rabuka their tacit support and influenced his decisions at the time.

The infamous Sunday ban was imposed, causing a lot of discomfort and hardship. Public transport ground to a halt and all businesses closed on Sunday.

Christians, who did not own cars, had to walk to church, some for several kilometres in the hot sun, to attend their Sunday services.

It adversely affected those in the lower rung of the economic ladder more than those who were affluent. Organised sports were also banned depriving those who played their sport on Sunday.

Reverend Lasaro and others subsequently took over the leadership of the Methodist Church and formally aligned it with Mr Rabuka’s pro-iTaukei issues.

He took over from Reverend Josateki Koroi and was formally installed in 1993.  He served as president until 1995. He retired in 2012.

The two main issues high on his agenda were the Christian state and restoration of the political rights and supremacy for the indigenous people, the iTaukei. Reverend Lasaro continued to spread his “gospel” after his installation and his influence permeated the iTaukei Methodist communities.

When Prime Voreqe Bainimarama entered the scene and started talking about equality and dismantling barriers to racial and religious harmony, removing discrimination, the resistance from the church was strong.

Reverend Lasaro’s influence had taken root. The conflict between Mr Bainimarama’s Government and the church led to the banning of the church’s annual conference.

It was later restored after the church softened its position and began to work with the Government endorsing the reforms and changes implemented by Mr Bainimarama, prior to the 2014 General Election. But Reverend Lasaro, it is understood, stuck to his personal beliefs, until his death last year.

The return of Mr Rabuka to politics as SODELPA leader appears to have rekindled the Reverend Lasaro factor. The church statement put out last week called on Government to review the Constitution to make Fiji a Christian State and to address indigenous rights issues. That statement took Mr Bainimarama by surprise that he quipped: “Looks like Rev Lasaro is back.”

What had happened was that a few of the younger talatalas were responsible for the statement. The top officials, including the president, Reverend Tevita Banivanua, were not aware of the statement.

Reverend Banivanua denied the Methodist Church was the mouthpiece of SODELPA as mentioned by Mr Bainimarama in Parliament. To avoid any future misunderstanding, the church would have to inform all talatalas to be careful of what they say especially on political issues.

It’s apparent that Reverend Lasaro’s legacy lives on among the remnants of his group. The controversial statement is in contrast with the statement of Reverend Banivanua during the Diwali celebrations last year.

Reverend Banivanua said then: “The fact that we live in a country, that since independence has not only acknowledged the different faith communities, but also celebrates together our diverse experiences and expressions of faith, is proof that Fiji, despite our many differences can be one nation.

“As we all enjoy the lights, fireworks, food and fellowship of this national holiday, let us all celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and join to build and strengthen our relationships between our communities and one another as our part in making Fiji, once again, ‘the way the world should be’.”

Most Christians agree that their faith affects how they approach politics, but disagreements arise over the political role of the church.

The phrase “separation of church and state” causes confusion at times.

The best and safest line for all churches in Fiji to take is to let members decide for themselves which party they would like to support. The churches should be apolitical. That would remove misunderstandings and conflicts. The churches should focus on their pastoral responsibilities and deal with a host of social problems affecting their communities rather than worrying about politics.

Feedback: nemani.delaibatiki@fijisun.com.fj

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