The relationship between religion and politics in Fiji

Clearly, the media agitation regarding the divergent views of both Catholic and non-Catholic laity has shown the deep concern about the relationship between religion and politics in Fiji, but this concern is also present in Methodist adherents. While the Methodist Church was actively involved in the 1987 coups and has been a vocal commentator and support for the Qarase government since, not all its laity believe that this is a role for the Methodist Church. Indeed, outside of Suva, some have expressed concern about the extent to which the Methodist Church in Suva is involved with political issues that are not immediately relevant to rural areas.[68]

With regard to the Catholic Church in Fiji, many see the Archbishop’s acceptance of the co-chair role on the council for the Charter as profoundly political, given that the Charter was initiated by the interim government and that the Archbishop is co-chairing the council with Bainimarama. On the other hand, the Archbishop’s position has always been that he wants to see Fiji progress towards a better future and that his position on a council is not the same as joining or endorsing a particular political party. Father Barr supports this position, arguing that there is a right and a wrong way for churches to be involved in politics:

I think the wrong sense is to be giving your support to the political parties, and endorsing and so on. I think the right sense is that the church has the right and the obligation to be critical of government policies and government actions, particularly when they impinge upon underprivileged and poor people.[69]

Thus, the dominant view in the Catholic Church of Fiji is that the church must be political in that it must relate to the issues of the day, but should not be endorsing particular parties. Yet the Catholic Church hierarchy’s support for many of the views of the Bainimarama-led interim government suggests that this is not at all an easy position to take.

An example of this was Mataca’s comment that, ‘There are those who want elections to be held imminently, so that we can return to democracy as soon as possible, but elections alone will not bring about democracy nor guarantee stability or end all coups’.[70] In the context of no commitments having been met with regard to the proposed general election in March 2009 – despite strong regional and international pressure to hold elections as soon as possible; and because Mataca made these comments at the first meeting of the NCBBF – such statements are easily construed as being in favour of one political party over another. This conclusion is further strengthened by the fact that the riposte published the next day in The Fiji Times came directly from the SDL’s director.

To complicate matters further, the Roman Catholic Church’s theology in Fiji is based upon liberation theology.[71] This theology maintains that oppressive social systems create social injustice and therefore must be actively challenged, sometimes with justifiable acts of ‘counter-violence.’ Father Barr expressed similar sentiments to me, drawing on Thomas Jefferson, who argued that the highest duty of a good citizen is to save the country when it is in danger, over and above strict observance of written law. In a second example, he drew on a statement by France’s new minister of foreign affairs, who said that it was sometimes necessary to go outside the law to achieve justice. He related this back to the first article he and others wrote after the coup, saying:

We were talking about social justice, trying to do away with racism, have a multi-racial country where the benefits of development are for everybody and also make sure that human rights are observed. But you know, I spoke to one of the lawyers here in Fiji and I said, ‘What do you think of that statement as a lawyer? Is it sometimes necessary to go outside the law to achieve justice?’ And he thought for a moment he said, ‘It’s absolutely correct’.[72]

Thus, while he views the military takeover as technically illegal, Father Barr strongly feels that, in this case, the end justifies the means. Given the strength of his views, it is not surprising that many have assumed Father Barr supported the coup outright.

Another level of analysis concerns the question of the relationship between religion and the state in Fiji. The Methodist Church and the ACCF have periodically called for a Christian state which, in the context of Fiji’s divisions between the ‘races’ of Fijians and Indians, would legitimate and maintain the paramountcy of Christian Fijians as hosts, while all other races retain guest-status. By contrast the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the Presbyterian Church, which endorse ecumenism and tolerance, strongly oppose such a racially based paradigm.

However, the Archbishop’s involvement in the Charter has suggested to at least one critic that the Roman Catholic Church might well sanction another kind of Christian state. This critic makes the point that, being a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, the Archbishop will be required to oversee:

… a process whose outcomes must be consistent with Christian values, beliefs and doctrines. While he may not actively impose his own personal views on the process, as a Christian, he would, presumably, have to sanction its outcomes in terms of his church’s beliefs and only an outcome that accorded with those beliefs would be tolerated and accord with his conscience.[73]

The writer gave homosexual marriage and abortion as examples to show that the Archbishop was unlikely to support any principle emerging from the Charter that was not fully consistent with those endorsed by the Vatican. Therefore, while the outcome would not be the same as that proposed by the Methodists, Roman Catholic values would be implicit in the outcomes of the Charter, which is to act as a guideline (and perhaps instrument) for selecting future governments. If this is the case, while the Archbishop’s role is not directly political in that he has not technically joined any political party nor endorsed the coup, it will have political ramifications.[74]

[68] For instance, in focus groups I conducted in Labasa, Vanua Levu, in 2005, several Methodists were highly critical of the statements by the church in Suva. One railed against the position the Methodist Church in Suva had taken on homosexuality, liquor licences, and the Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill, arguing that the church should not be involved in politics at all. Newland, L. 2006. Social Justice in Fiji: Christian Perspectives, ECREA, Suva.

[69] Interview, 19 September 2007.

[70] The Fiji Times, 18 January 2008.

[71] As many have noted, the Archbishop’s views are similar in style to the views of Father Kevin Barr. I conducted research for ECREA, which was headed by Father Barr, in 2005. During this research period, I was asked to explore Liberation Theology as it developed through the Popes’ Encyclicals and Catholic meetings, such as the Medellin Conference in Latin America, as part of a broader piece of research on social justice.

[72] Interview, 19 September 2007.

[73] Fiji Daily Post, 30 October 2007.

[74] More recently, Archbishop Mataca appeared on the current affairs program, Close-Up, saying that the Charter was a Covenant, which suggests a more intense relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church than was otherwise being conveyed (‘Close-Up’, Fiji One, 13 April 2008). Curiously, when I asked to see the tape of the broadcast, it had mysteriously disappeared.