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“Religions and politics” (FT 29 Dec. 2018)

19/01/2019

Religion and Politics (FT 29/12/2018)

Last week, while rebutting Minister Aiyaz Khaiyum’s criticism of Archbishop Chong for supposedly using inaccurate facts on poverty in Fiji, I had noted that the Minister of Economy had also made a wider statement “It is unfortunate that the archbishop has chosen to make comments in perhaps areas that are not his expertise… we have a man of the cloth getting to an area…”.

I had noted that this criticism raised legitimate and wider questions that Fiji has not debated for decades since the 1987 coup and should: should religious leaders be commenting on “poverty”?   Should religious leaders (Methodists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslim) align themselves with political parties and movements? Or even should political parties or state institutions (army, police, prisons, government departments, state enterprise) ask selected religious leaders to bless their gatherings?

Religions, poverty and wealth

Virtually all religions require their leaders to address issues of  poverty.

There are many verses in the Quran which urge Muslims to give to the poor and to take part in welfare projects: “And it is not your riches nor your children that will bring you near Us in rank, but those who believe and do good works, will have a double reward for what they did…” (Ch.34:V.38) All Fiji knows that at special Muslim festivals of prayer, there will be lines of people outside mosques to whom the Muslims will give in charity.

Buddhism teaches the importance of a balanced life- neither of extreme poverty nor extreme wealth. Wealth is not seen negatively as long as it is acquired honestly and through hard work; while wealthy persons are also in a better position to be charitable to the needy. The highest state of existence in Buddhism is of course “nirvana”- the complete non-attachment to all things, material and non-material desires. Of course, the sight of Buddhist monks being fed by Buddhist families in a common one in all Buddhist societies.

Hinduism is probably one of the few religions whose holy books (the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayana) have recommendations not just on poverty, but also wealth that can be and are interpreted in ambivalent ways by the followers. For Hindus, charity should be practiced, but in well defined ways, to specific recipients (like Holy Men), and at auspicious times of the year.  Hinduism does not recommend indiscriminate charity as it might “ruin” the “undeserving” poor. Hinduism is also unique among religions in that it has a Goddess of Wealth (Laxmi) to whom devotees may pray to, as do many Hindu shopkeepers every morning in Fiji at their little mandirs in their shops. Being rich is not frowned upon in Hinduism.

Virtually all branches of Christianity require Christians to assist the poor. Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9). “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will exact life for life.”  (Proverbs 22:22-23). “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God”. (Proverbs 14:31)

Some interpretations of the Christian teachings require Christians to give the “tithe” (or 10 percent of one’s income sometimes as much as 20 percent), to give to those who preach the gospel. An often quoted teaching of Christ (capable of many interpretations) is that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter heaven”.

What the few paragraphs suggest clearly, is that all religions require their leaders to speaking out on social issues such as poverty, as did Catholic Archbishop Chong. To suggest that poverty is not an area of his expertise, as did Minister Khaiyum, is a matter of opinion, not fact.

The Bainimarama Government and poverty

Many academics have pointed out that one factor in the electoral success of Fiji First Party in the elections of 2014 and 2018 was Bainimarama’s ability, through the support of the RFMF, to keep ethno-nationalist forces in check.

But just as important has been the “pro-poor” policies of the Bainimarama Government on freeing up education for all, from pre-school right up to tertiary education, equalizing land lease money between chiefs and commoners, and subsidies for water and school bus fares.

Even the massive scale of thousand dollar grants (which the Bainimarama Government weakly denies to be “hand-outs”) may be seen as welfare payments by political ministers, even if to a chosen few among the poor, and even if outside any development framework that FDB would have used.

One would have thought that the Bainimarama Government, given its own oft-stated focus on poverty alleviation,  would be last to criticize any social leader who tries to publicize the issue of increasing poverty in Fiji.

But of course, far more debatable is when religious organizations align themselves with political parties and movements, as any number have, either openly or tacitly.

Churches and politics

After the 1987 coup, the Methodist Church leaders had openly supported the treasonous removal of the lawfully elected NFP/FLP government of Bavadra and also after the 2000 coup which removed the lawfully elected FLP government of  Chaudhry.

The arguments used then was that Fiji should be politically led by indigenous Fijians with statements such as “the Fijian public will not tolerate an Indian Prime Minister”.

In 2000, Bainimarama had similar views they did not return the Chaudhry FLP Government to office after regaining control, instead appointing the Interim Qarase Government with its clearly ethno-nationalist views.

But after the 2000 mutiny, the Bainimarama Government came down heavily on  the Methodist Church with strong public statements that religious ministers and churches should not be involved in politics.

But Bainimarama did the opposite after their 2006 coup removed the lawfully elected Government of Qarase alleging widespread corruption. They appointed Archbishop Mataca (the Head of the Catholic Church) as Co-Chairman of the People’s Charter exercise being undertaken by the Bainimarama Government, as the only “way forward” for Fiji.

While some may argue Catholic Archbishop Mataca’s participation in the People’s Charter exercise may have been part of a century old tension in Fiji between Methodists and Catholics over access to state power, I have no reason to doubt that Mataca genuinely believed that he was “taking Fiji forward” towards national reconciliation and the restoration of democracy, not supporting a political movement.

But the day that the Bainimarama Government abrogated the 1997 Constitution following the 2009 Court of Appeal judgement that the 2006 coup was illegal, that also led to the military’s rejection of the People’s Charter exercise whose first clauses had stated the supremacy of the 1997 Constitution.

Bainimarama, who had initially stated that no military personnel would benefit from his 2006 coup, eventually formalized his political movement through the formation and his leadership of the Fiji First Party. That political party was declared the winner of the 2014 Elections and recently the 2018 Elections, with many former military officers taking appointments as ministers or senior civil servants or board members of public enterprises.

The Catholic Church had effectively aligned itself with forces that eventually became a political movement.

Archbishop Mataca (and John Samy) did later withdraw his support of Bainimarama’s Government through a letter of protest (17 November 2011) pointing out all  the negatives they saw in Bainimarama’s governance.

But the damage had been done by then to the Catholic Church through the actions of prominent Catholics and clerics.

Clerics supporting illegal governments

The public could be justified in thinking that the  Catholic Church had endorsed the 2006 coup, especially when many Catholic clerics (like Father Kevin Barr) and other prominent Catholics put their hands up in support of the Military Government’s initiatives and government boards.

Father Kevin Barr, for instance, publicly supported the illegal Military Government because of its support for two of his own personal strands of work in Fiji: the improvement of wages for vulnerable workers through the mechanism of the Wages Councils (in which I personally provided critical support through a study I did for ECREA Just Wages for Fiji) and decent housing for squatters.

Critics of the supporters of the 1987 and 2000 coups had pointed out that “the Fijian cause” however legitimate, did not justify illegal treasonous methods used to achieve the political objectives.

Similarly, it was disappointing that personal good objectives like decent wages and housing for the poor (Father Kevin Barr), or better electoral systems (Father David Arms), should be used to justify fundamentally illegal methods such as treasonous coups that removed lawfully elected governments, abrogated constitutions which had been passed by the Fiji Parliament, and imposed constitutions and electoral systems on the people of Fiji.

One feature which has not received much coverage from academics is that the 206 Bainimarama coup clearly received support from the leaders of Hindu organizations like Arya Samaj and Sanatan Dharam Pratinidhi Sabha, and also Muslim organizations.

One reason for these leaders to give their support to the Bainimarama Government and Fiji First Party was because of its stance on treating Indo-Fijians equally with indigenous Fijians (the slogan “we are all Fijians”).

With many prominent Hindus and Muslims also accepting appointments with the Bainimarama Government and many public enterprises, it may be easily argued that they also gave their religions’ explicit and implicit support of illegal and treasonous 2006 coup. Again, the “cause” was seen as more important than the “process”.

It is therefore encouraging that Catholic Archbishop Chong in his recent response (The Proclaimer, 18 November 2018) to the Fiji Sun criticisms of him , explicitly disassociated himself from politics “I do not head a political party. I am not running for a position in government. I have nothing to lose from the result of the election”. He reiterated that he was merely “doing what a faithful Catholic Arch-bishop should be doing – prophetic teaching. .. [through] a sermon on economic justice”.

It is also encouraging that the Methodist Church has also issued statements in recent years dissociating themselves from politics and the State.  Unfortunately, the Fijian public has not seen such clear statements from the Hindu or Muslim organizations.

Church clerics and state institutions

The RFMF, which is supposed to be a secular institution of the Fiji Government, often has Christian chaplains give services to the soldiers, but not Hindu pundits or Muslim imaams. Once there was a practice of multi-faith services at such occasions.   The Police and Prisons similarly have Christian services but not Hindu or Muslim.

It is well known that some Government Departments and civil servants say Christian prayers to open or close at their departmental meetings, but not Hindus or Muslim.

Recently, SODELPA held its “thanksgiving service” at the World Harvest Centre in Kinoya and also at the Imannueli Methodist Church in Nawanawa.

Hindus and Muslims may be forgiven for thinking that SODELPA still sees itself as a “Christian” organization, and fear that if elected to power, SODELPA might revisit the concept of “Fiji as a Christian State” with policies on the Sabbath and “Sunday as a day of rest” (even if other religions have other holy days of prayer: Christian Seventh Day Adventists with their Saturday,  and Muslims with their Friday).

What public policy?

I find it fascinating that recently,  that virtually all of Fiji’s faith-based organizations came out in support of action against climate change  (see the COP23.com.fj website):

https://cop23.com.fj/fijian-faith-based-organisations-issue-multi-faith-cop23-charter/

Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at-i-Islam (Lahore) Fiji,

INTERFAITH SEARCH FIJI

Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Fiji

Methodist Church in Fiji

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Suva

Anglican Diocese of Polynesia

Salvation Army in Fiji

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church

Fiji Evangelical Fellowship

Coptic Orthodox Church in Fiji

Fiji Baptist Convention

Fiji Community Churches of Christ

Methodist Church in Fiji

Congregational Christian Church of Samoa – Fiji

 

Of course, action against climate change should be an important objective for Fiji citizens and their religious organizations.

But Fiji’s troubled political past since the 1987 coups and explicit and implicit roles played by religious leaders and clerics, surely suggests that more important is the need for all religions and their clerics to formally disassociate themselves from political parties, political movements, governments, government departments and state enterprises.

An explicit and widely publicized national consensus among Fiji’s religions would guide not just all political parties, but also their faithful in Fiji.

Such national consensus could also issue guidelines that allow religious clerics to freely comment on social issues like poverty or crime or homelessness, as is specifically required by their religious beliefs, without being accused by some minister, politician or journalist of meddling in national politics and undermining the government of the day.

 

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