At Large

Tempest Fiji

Hymns and coups on a trouble tropical isle.

By 7.30.09

Fiji may not often cross the minds of many Americans except as a distant South Pacific tropical paradise. But amid the palm trees and coconuts, there is political and religious turmoil in Fiji. Its military regime recently arrested top leaders of the Fijian Methodist Church in a bid to squash dissent as the nation's largest church prepared for its Annual Conference and hymn singing contest in August.

The Methodist clash with the Fijian military is a recent odd twist for Fiji, where the church has traditionally been closely associated with the military. In l987, the ethnically Fijian-dominated army, led by a Methodist lay preacher and army colonel with seeming Cromwellian ambitions, overthrew the newly elected ethnically Indian-dominated Labour government. The army, often with church support, wanted to protect ethnic Fijians, many still living under the authority of chiefs in the villages on communal lands, from the nation's more commercially active ethnic Indians, who descend from indentured sugar cane harvesters imported under British colonial rule. By l987, the ethnic Indians outnumbered ethnic Fijians in Fiji.

In an amusing aside, the first Fijian coup in 1987 was coincidentally preceded by a brief visit to Fiji by retired U.S. Army General Vernon Walters, the brilliant polyglot and frequent translator for U.S. presidents, who among many government posts, served as Deputy CIA Director under Nixon. The mere presence of Walters, who was then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, for a stop-over ignited leftist conspiracy theories that the Fijian army was the agent of a CIA-instigated coup, à la Iran in 1953. Alas, Fiji hardly merited extensive geopolitical exertions from the CIA or anybody else. But the mostly ethnically Indian Labour regime had been left-leaning, while ethnic Fijians, most of them culturally conservative Christians, were and are stalwartly pro-Western.

If Fiji has international importance, it is for the Fijian Army's long-time role in United Nations-led peacekeeping. The originally British-trained military is relatively large and very professional for a tiny nation with under a million people. UN peacekeeping has been a major money-maker for Fiji, which is compensated for its military's missions. And retired Fijian soldiers often continue as well-paid security consultants in places like Iraq, providing additional income for Fiji.

Fiji's 1987 coup against a left-leaning Labour government was repeated in 2000, when Fiji's first ethnically Indian premier was overthrown by the army. Over the last 20 years, discouraged ethnic Indians have been emigrating from Fiji. Once a slight majority, they are now only 38 percent of Fiji's population. Most ethnic Indians are Hindu, with a significant Muslim minority. Two thirds of ethnic Fijians are Methodist, whose church has experienced religious revivals in recent years, occasionally arousing the interests of evangelicals among U.S. United Methodists, who are frustrated by their own church's decline in America.

Previous Fijian military coups had overthrown ethnically Indian dominated governments, but in 2006 the army overthrew an ethnically Fijian regime accused of corruption. Dissatisfaction with this new army-led regime among ethnic Fijians, including the dominant Methodists, has grown. Even during times of previous coups, human rights have mostly been safeguarded in Fiji. But Fiji's current military rulers, who instituted "emergency rule" in April, now fear possible opposition from the powerful Methodist Church, so long seen as protector of traditional ethnic Fijians. Apparently Fijian Methodists have complained to the United Nations and human rights groups about the military regime's suppression of traditional Fijian liberties.

A July 23 Fijian court order forbade the Methodists from convening their Annual Conference in August. A military official warned that the church had planned to feature ''political issues'' rather than only ''spiritual development.'' When the church declined to cancel what is for Methodists their chief organizing event, the church's president and secretary general, with 6 others, were arrested and detained for several days. Among the detainees was a female Fijian chief, herself Catholic, who had offered to host the Methodist Annual Conference. Upon their release on bail, their travel documents were withheld and they are prohibited from public appearance.

The Methodist Annual Conference in Fiji is typically preceded by a massive choir hymn singing contest of 10,000 enthusiastic vocalists. According to "Ecumenical News International," perhaps 20,000 to 50,000 Methodists may now plan to gather, in defiance of the government ban. With the church's leaders officially silenced, the church is reportedly working through alternative leadership to ensure that the Annual Conference, and the hymn singing contest, proceed.

Having been converted to Methodism mostly by British missionaries in the 19th century away from cannibalism and idolatry, Fijians today are quite adamant about their church events, which displaced the old pagan totems and interweave through every nook of traditional Fijian culture. Fijian Navy Commodore Frank Bainimarama, now prime minister, and himself a Methodist, likely was unwise to challenge his church's Annual Conference and hymn singing festival. Can the attempted silencing of hymns topple a government? Fijians may learn in the coming weeks.




Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.