Religion plays an important role in Fijian society. Indigenous Fijians are overwhelmingly Christian, predominantly Methodist but with significant Roman Catholic, Assemblies of God, Seventh-day Adventist, and other Christian minorities; Indo-Fijians are mostly Hindu, with a large Muslim as well as a smaller Christian minority. Religious organizations and preachers have been vocal in their comments on the controversial legislation that seeks to establish a commission with the power to compensate victims and pardon perpetrators of the coup d'état which shook Fiji to its foundations in 2000.
The Methodist Church has endorsed the bill (with a faction dissenting), Hindu organizations have opposed it, as has the Roman Catholic Church and a number of other religious groups. Several religious groups have taken more nuanced positions, calling for dialogue, negotiation, and good will.
The Methodist Church announced its support for the bill on 19 July, according to the Rev. Timoci Nawaciono, head of the church's Nasea circuit. Methodist support was much coveted by the government, as almost two-thirds of indigenous Fijians are affiliated to the denomination. Nawaciono acknowledged, however, that Methodist support for the legislation was far from unanimous, and said that on 24 July, all parishioners will be asked to complete forms stating their individual opinions on it. On 1 August, the church announced that a majority of its members had voted in favour of the bill.
On 21 July, the Rev. Iliesa Naivalu of the Methodist Church's Department of Christian Citizenship and Social Services said that the imprisonment of coup perpetrators was having a devastating effect on their families. The Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Unity Bill was a positive way forward, he said, as it would give the families of the coup perpetrators the chance to lead normal lives once more. He called for "righteous justice" which would look at a human being in totality.
Addressing a special meeting of the Great Council of Chiefs on 28 July, Naivalu said that the Methodist Church supported the bill for the sake of the country's chiefs. He said that reconciliation and forgiveness were an integral part of Fijian culture, and should be upheld. "We support the Bill as it provides a restorative justice system which has more in common with Pacific cultural practices of dispute settlement, reconciliation and forgiveness," he said. He cautioned that retributive justice would not heal the nation's wounds. "While the retributive justice system and imprisonment may have served the purpose of punishing offenders, it will not lead to healing and reconciliation," Naivalu said. While acknowledging that some chiefs had been convicted and imprisoned on coup-related offenses, he insisted that "they were acting in accordance with their prescribed role according to customary practices."
The endorsement of the legislation by the Methodist Church has brought the church into conflict with the Military, which has threatened to ban Methodist ministers from serving as military chaplains with Fijian troops travelling overseas.
On 11 October, Naivalu said that at its annual conference in Nadi, the Methodist Church had accepted the legislation "in its entirety," a decision that he said was binding on both ministers and parishioners. He clarified, however, that the decision to endorse the bill was for its own sake and should not be interpreted as a vote of support for the Qarase government. Methodists were free to support any political party they wished, he said.
Dissident voices led by Rev. Josateki Koroi, a former President of the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma, have made it clear that not all Methodists endorse the stance of their present leadership. Koroi spoke out on 7 June, saying that reconciliation must allow for differences of race, culture, and religion. "Reconciliation", he said, had become an over-used cliché, which people used without understanding properly what it meant. "By definition there has to be a wrongdoer and a victim. To reconcile the difference, the wrongdoer must show remorse and true repentance, however, trivial. And the victim should be willing to forgive the wrongdoer," a point Koroi said was lost on the government. He said that if the reconciliation theory was based on the simplistic assumption that race was the issue, it was "on shaky ground."
Koroi reiterated this position more forcefully on 28 June. He said that he believed that the intent of the bill was good, but that it missed a key point essential to reconciliation: that there has to be genuine repentance on the part of the wrongdoer. He said that the perpetrators of the coup, whom he called "thugs," showed no sign of repentance for "their treacherous deeds," and that there could be no reconciliation without it. "Sadly, the Ministry of Reconciliation with its good intentions has not identified its key points," he said.
Rev. Ame Tugaue, the General Secretary of the church, rejected such sentiments and said on 19 October that "all Christians" supported the Unity Bill. He strongly criticized Koroi's dissident group for making a negative submission to the parliamentary committee studying the legislation. "Reconciliation is God’s programme and everything will go a long way if people put aside their differences and focus on reconciliation," he asserted, saying that the Unity Bill was an effective tool towards realizing that goal. The submission to which Tugaue objected maintained that the church and civil government are both instituted by God, but given different spheres of responsibility, and that it was wrong for either institution to interfere with the other. The biblical command to forgive was given to believers as individuals, not the state, said the submission. Tugaue rejected this, saying that the dissidents' submission presented a bad image of the church, especially to indigenous Fijians. The Methodist church supported the bill and would continue to do so, no matter what objections were raised by others, Tugaue said.
Tugaue's comments were a reversal of his earlier stance, articulated on 9 July, that the church was reserving judgement until it had finished consulting its members. In that earlier statement, Tugaue had said that the church supported the goal reconciliation but was opposed to any interference with the course of justice.
Archbishop Petero Mataca of the Roman Catholic Church spoke out against the bill on 22 June, reversing earlier support for it - support that he claimed had been based on a misleading presentation from the Prime Minister before the legislation was made public. On May 2, Mataca said, Prime Minister Qarase had addressed a delegation from the Fiji Council of Churches. "The presentation by the Prime Minister painted the Bill in a very positive light and we voiced our support," Mataca said. The presentation had been entirely oral, with no copy of the bill being produced, and the Prime Minister did not tell the church leaders about the amnesty clauses.
Mataca called the overthrow of a democratically elected government a serious crime, and said that "the coup cycle" would continue unless those involved faced the consequences of their crimes. "I publicly appeal to our President, our Prime Minister and the members of our Government to withdraw the Bill until such time as proper consultations can be held and appropriate amendments made," Mataca said. Reconciliation and unity could not come from a politically motivated bill, he warned. On the contrary, he saw reconciliation as a healing process that must start with truth telling, confession of wrongdoing, genuine request for forgiveness and willingness to accept the consequences of one's actions. "It seems ... that the Bill has been hastily put together for political purposes - especially in view of the elections next year," Mataca said. "This is not in the interests of the country and any stubborn effort by the Government to push through this Bill will be counter productive and will threaten Fiji's future stability."
On 23 June, the Prime Minister's office put out a statement denying that he had expressly asked the church leaders for their support, contradicting Mataca's assertions. He had, the statement said, merely wanted to inform them of his intentions. According to the statement, Qarase spoke from typed notes - a claim denied by Bishop Apimeleki Qiliho, President of the Fiji Council of Churches, who said that the Prime Minister had not made a speech at the meeting, but had distributed copies of a speech instead.
Roman Catholic Vicar-General Father Ben Kaloudau reiterated the opposition of his church to the legislation on 2 August. The church believed that the bill was not based on Christian principles. Justice should be followed and all coup perpetrators should be held accountable for they actions, he added. This represented a hardening of Kaloudau's earlier position, which had been critical of both supporters and opponents of the legislation and had called on the Military to follow the proper channels in voicing its opposition to the bill.
Paula Baba, a lay member of the Columbans missionary society, spoke out against the bill on 24 June, calling it a form of "cheap reconciliation" which totally contradicted the concept of restorative justice. '"Victims would only be compensated if people that had committed crimes against them were granted amnesty. This is cheap reconciliation," he said. He said that it gave victims of the coup "second position" behind its perpetrators, and that its true purpose was to protect persons currently in positions of power, so that they could remain in those positions "without breaking a sweat."
Not all Catholics agreed with their leadership. Kelepi Lesi, Vice-President of the Catholic League, endorsed the bill in a parliamentary submission on 30 June. Contradicting his own Archbishop, Petero Mataca, Lesi said the bill promoted principles of forgiveness and healing that were very much in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, and he called on Catholics to support it. "Let us all support Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase's-led government to take a lead role — to change the cause of history to prosperity, position our country as the paragon of multi-cultural society, sculpture the contours of our future, chisel away the rough edges of our society and carve it to perfection," he said.
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