September 02, 2011

Dr Wadan Narsey: Ending our cycles of religious intolerance

For 95% of the time, the activities of Fiji’s religions have been good for Fiji’s development.  For perhaps 5% of the time, their actions have caused great harm.

Currently, the Military Regime continues its persecution of the Methodist Church, blatantly contravening Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Basic Human Rights:  Everyone has the right to freedom .... either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Other religions in Fiji who are allowed to freely have their gatherings and functions, remain quiet.

These Catholic, Anglican, Hindu, and Muslim religious organizations are at a cross-road in Fiji’s troubled history.

They can do the difficult but right thing today, by speaking up to express their disapproval of the Regime’s treatment of the Methodist Church.  Or, wallowing in the past injustices, they can remain silent.

If religious leaders remain quiet, then the religious followers and their educated leaders, must rise to the challenge.

If both religious leaders and followers remain silent during these troubled times, Fiji is unlikely to come out of our cycles of religious intolerance.

Easy to have revenge
No doubt, many Hindus, Catholics and Muslims feel a quiet satisfaction that the Methodists are being persecuted by the Military Regime - “maleka”- “now you see what it feels like” to be persecuted!

They of course remember 1987 and 2000 when the Methodist Church supported the military coups that removed democratically elected governments, and demanded the imposition of a “Christian State” and “Sunday Bans”.

Temples and mosques had been burnt creating great psychological anxiety, distress and anger amongst Hindu and Muslim followers, many of whom began to feel that Fiji could never be their home, if they could not freely practise their religion. Many did emigrate.

But in 1987, the Catholic and other Christian clerics and adherents (and don’t forget the few conscientious Methodists like Rev. Koroi and others) earned huge goodwill from Hindus and Muslims by speaking up for their religious freedoms.

This no doubt also encouraged Hindu and Muslim participation in the Council of Churches, which played a powerful bridging role between religions and ethnic groups.

Today’s Catholics and Hindus as guilty as 1987 Methodists
Since 2006, the Catholic and Hindu religious organisations have behaved just as badly as the Methodists did in 1987.

They came out in support of a military coup that treasonously  removed a democratically elected government.

The leaders of the Catholic Church, the Hindu Sanatan Dharam  and Arya Samaj, and the Muslim League took prominent part in the NCBBF whose culmination was the People’s Charter, with its first paragraph swearing allegiance to the 1997 Constitution.

Many Catholics and Hindus took up positions in the Military Regime’s Boards.

They continued to support the Regime, even after the Appeal Court ruled in 2009 that the 2006 coup and the President’s actions were illegal and treasonous.

The military allegations of widespread corruption, both financial and electoral, have never been proven after five years - and are unlikely to be.

Without any public statement against what has happened since 2006 and 2009, these religious leaders remain collaborators in a treasonous military coup, and all its resultant evils: lack of accountability for hundreds of millions of tax-payers funds, destruction of the economy, draconian media censorship, and personal enrichment, to name just a few.

These actions of the Catholic, Hindu and Muslim organisations are no different today from those of the Methodists in 1987.

They have never publicly withdrawn their support of the 2006 Military coup, and they do not speak out in support of their sister Methodist Church who are persecuted.

Of course, neither has the Methodist Church ever made clear public statements admitting that their support of the 1987 and 2000 coups was treasonous and morally wrong.

And so the sad vicious cycle of religious intolerance continues, building up dams of evil for the future.

Religion is personal AND social
The purest and truest religion is between the individual “Person” and “God”.  There is no real need for religious organisations, leaders, buildings, or gatherings.

Yet all religions the world over have organisations, leaders, buildings of worship and gatherings.  These all strengthen the social bonds that the adherents have with each other, and enable them to collectively achieve many other good things in life often neglected by the State.

Despite our destructive military coups, Fiji is still one of the more developed countries in the Pacific because all our many religious organisations, have very successfully built and managed schools, technical and agricultural colleges, now universities, old peoples’ homes, orphanages, and welfare organizations.

Despite their great poverty, they also build ostentatious churches, temples and mosques, even though God has no need for physical buildings.

But one of the social benefits of religion, that even agnostics like me acknowledge, is that religious “peer group” social pressure is often the only thing that stops many ordinary humans from doing evil towards their fellow citizens.

For this valuable social aspect of religion, people must be allowed to freely gather together- to pray, to sing, to raise funds, and to discuss whatever matters they wish to discuss.  It is their basic human right to do so.

No one should be allowed to stop this basic human right, least of all an illegal Military Regime which has callously turned its tax-payer funded guns, on its own people.

Today, Hindus, Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims and even Indo-Fijian Methodists, are allowed by this Military Regime to freely practise their religion. 

But not the indigenous Fijian Methodists. 

Learning from the past
No religious organisation today can sit on their high horses and say “We are innocent”.

Many anonymous Methodist bloggers look back with great regret, to their own support of the coups in 19897 and 2000, and turned a blind eye to all the resulting injustices to others.

Today, many genuine Catholics must be wondering whether their support of the 2006 military coup has done far more damage to Fiji and the interests of poor, than the good done by small sums thrown around for social welfare and squatter housing.

Clerics who supported the Military’s alleged electoral reform after the 2006 coup, must be wondering, whether they were merely used to justify a coup, and perhaps will soon be recalled out of their little boxes, for the next Act in the Military Charade.

Many ordinary Hindus, following the Military requirement for permits to have religious gatherings like Ram Naumi, now must have great doubts about the honesty, integrity and accountability of the Military Regime, which has also destroyed the sugar industry, and persecuted their political and trade union leaders.

Ending the cycle of religious intolerance
Religious leaders have a glorious opportunity to rise above past discordance and defend the religious freedoms of all religions, Methodists and others, while all acknowledging their mistakes in the past.

Religious leaders, who know the importance of repentance, are surely ideal people to take the lead in reconciliation in Fiji today, especially as most should not have personal material agendas (although some clearly do).

It is in such difficult times that religious leaders can prove their leadership mantles, just as some did in 1987 and 2000.

Here also is a valuable opportunity for the many intellectuals of all races, who support these religious bodies, to offer their wise advice and guide the religious leaders.

If the religious and intellectual leaders fail to lead, then they place enormous burdens on ordinary Christians, Hindus and Muslims to “do the right thing”.

Usually ordinary people can’t -- witness all the global nightmares of religious intolerance and violence-- between Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Muslims, Hindus and Christians.

Good people of Fiji: you have an opportunity to end the cycles of religious bigotry that began in 1987.

Let not the evils of media censorship and Public Emergency Decrees, or the pernicious desire for “revenge”, stop you in this worthy endeavor.

Blessed will be they who extend their helping hands to those who are down. And doubly blessed will be Fiji.

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