23 Sep 2013

Fiji churches umbrella group support strong words on democracy

4:53 pm on 23 September 2013

The Fiji Council of Churches has supported a push for a peaceful path to democracy in Fiji and an end to a culture of silence.

The Council, which includes Fiji's main Christian churches, has agreed with religious leaders' call last week to transform the present system of power and allow people to take part in political affairs freely and responsibly.

Their call came following a strong statement by the Catholic Archbishop of Suva, Peter Loy Chong, who said the present government was perpetuating a system that had brought about divisiveness and the coup culture.

The Council's spokesman, Reverend James Bhagwan, says unity is important at this time.

JAMES BHAGWAN: The churches have not spoken collectively for a number of years for various reasons. And so when the Methodist Church, for example, spoke out, it was victimised, and when churches speak out as individual organisations or individual faith communities, they can be targeted for victimisation, so it's important they're able to speak with one voice, that's important. It's important there is a collective view that politics needs to change in the country, but more importantly in terms of the Christian community in Fiji and the wider community the issues of peace and justice, of humility and of working to empower people to be able to participate fully in the political life of the country is very important.

SALLY ROUND: Given that criticism of this government, has there been any feedback at all so far?

JB: Well, not that I have heard. Some aspects of the statement have been welcome and some have not, but this is a call, once more, for us as the Christian community in Fiji to look at what democracy means for us and the values that we believe in in terms of our Christian faith, the values of justice, of peace, of equality, and to ensure that, as we move towards the elections, we affirm these things and we continue to ensure that the journey that is being taken is one that is participatory.

SR: And how is that going to actually work on the ground? What are churches going to be doing?

JB: From my understanding, over the next 12 months there will be a calendar of dates on which those churches will be able to put out messages about peace - the way in which we can remain peaceful in our work - but also messages about justice or truth and equality and the values that we hold that we term 'Kingdom values', values that we believe are enshrined in the concept of our understanding of the Kingdom of God. So speaking to our community to inspire them, but at the same time it is the role of the church to be prophetic and so to make these statements to ensure that the voices are heard, so it is not the culture of silence, it is a culture where people feel empowered to speak up and to speak out.

SR: An interesting time that you've come out with this support and this statement pretty soon after the constitution came through. And in that constitution, the secularisation of the state is at the fore. Is this an attempt, perhaps, to reassert what could be seen as the church's very important role in Fiji?

JB: I think it's not just the church's role, but the role of faith communities. The statement said that faith in both its personal and public impression can make an important contribution towards democracy. The process that has been ongoing among Christian communities in Fiji to start to engage once again and have a sustained dialogue process, there are a number of processes that are ongoing to bring the Christian community together again 'cause it's been quite fragmented over the last decade. For us, we call it 'Kairos', we believe it's God's time. We are coming together at this moment. So because we see this happening at this moment we believe that this is the time to speak up and to speak together.

SR: So nothing to do with the constitution, then?

JB: Well, I don't' know if the churches, as individual churches, have had an opportunity to look at the constitution and to make their own reflection. There is not much that we can do regarding the constitution, however in the process leading up to elections we feel that we can make a very positive contribution.

SR: Your church, the Methodist Church, is among those agreeing to this statement, but only very recently the church has distanced itself from politics in its own constitution, so it would seem rather a contradiction to be agreeing to this. What are your comments?

JB: I disagree with that. The church is revising its constitution with regards to active participation in party politics in terms of campaigning and standing for election. However, the church, the Methodist Church, always feels that it has a responsibility to speak to the issues affecting society. So we are addressing it not from an issue of politics, but the issue of the well-being and the betterment of our society in Fiji.

SR:So what the statement is doing, which the churches support, is basically telling people to speak up?

JB: Not only to speak up, but in areas and times of stress and crises that we have gone through, and as we journey forward towards what we hope is democratic elections and a democratically elected government, we have had the political crises of the past. And this is just a reminder that we all have a responsibility and a part to play ensuring that the process is participatory and also peaceful. So we are are just reminding our members and reminding society about that. We have a whole range of events that have happened in Fiji, and the last one is in any time of elections and during campaigns, when things can get emotional and can get heated up, where differences can be allowed to surface and be exploited, we're just trying to make sure that from our perspective, as faith leaders, we are saying no to those divisive elements.