Wednesday, April 27, 2011

“Respect” and “Tolerance” are not dirty words for religious communities

Published in "Off the Wall" - the Fiji Times, Wednesday 6th January, 2011

The latest eruption of religious violence in Egypt brought an uncomfortable conclusion to my festive season. I recalled last year, I think it was on the 6th of January – which is the date of Epiphany and for Coptic Christians, the date on which they celebrate Christmas – that Coptic Christians were gunned down in Egypt as they left their midnight Christmas service. This year’s attack on Christians has led to protests and violent clashes between minority Christians and police.

I reflected on why this news disturbed me so much. Perhaps it was because I am appalled when any group of people oppresses or persecutes another group, especially a minority. Perhaps it is that as a Christian, I am familiar with Ancient Egypt (and the exodus of the Hebrews). Perhaps it is because I have grown up with the knowledge of Fiji’s role in Sinai. Perhaps it is because I had the privilege of touring the “Fiji Batt” in Sinai, visiting each observation post, checkpoint and sector control unit in the 2FIR’s area of operation. Perhaps it is because I have made friends in Cairo and visited the Coptic Museum there. Perhaps it is because these religious rivalries and intolerance exists despite the fact that both communities of faith are different branches of the same root – the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition which have as many similarities as they have differences.

However, I came across an article this week which filled me with a new hope in terms of organised religion, tolerance and peace. The article highlighted Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI decision to organise a summit of religious heads to discuss how they can work towards world peace.

The summit is to be held in Assisi, the birthplace of the revered Christian pacifist St. Francis, to whom is attributed the famous prayer, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace…”

According to the Pontiff, the summit follows in the footsteps of an earlier summit, hosted by the Late Pope John Paul II, in 1986, which was attended by leading Jews, Muslims, Christians and other faith leaders such as the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Pope Benedict XVI said that the aim of the summit was to make a serious push for a renewed “effort of those with faith of all religions to live their faith as a service for the cause of peace.”

While this is certainly glad tidings of joy for peace on earth and goodwill to all, any discussion at a global level will only bear fruit if it is planted in the local. For peace advocates and leaders of faith communities, the message still remains, “Think globally and Act locally”.

So what about our nation of Fiji? Despite the increasing number of churches in Fiji, prisons remain full of members of these communities of faith, the number of crimes committed by people who when asked about their religious affiliation will profess not only to be Christian but often consider themselves members of the larger churches in Fiji.

There is so much competition for wining souls that some churches add the phrase “at any cost” to their challenge to win a soul for Jesus. At any cost? Coercion? Intimidation? Defamation of other faith communities? What would the Lord and Master say to these people who gather flock with one hand and alienate people with the other?

Interreligious peace (peace between different religious groups) and intra-religious peace (peace among different denominations and sects of a particular religious group) are opposite sides of the same coin in Fiji. While I can only share from a Christian perspective, I understand that there are similar, if smaller in scale, tensions among other religious groups. However, before some groups can love their neighbour, they first need to embrace their brother, sister, mother and father.

In Fiji the tension between mainline churches can be seen not merely from personality clashes but predominantly because of politics – in terms of support for and against the different governments and allegiances during political crises in our 40-year history as a so-called independent nation. Until recently this has continued to be the case. However there are signs that despite some rumblings and continued agitation from within, all mainline churches seem willing to once again move forward, working together for the benefit of God’s people in Fiji.

Are churches in Fiji willing to work together? Are church leaders in Fiji willing to sit together? Can the desire to embody the ministry of reconciliation given to all Christians be greater than the quest to be the greatest? Cooperation in common mission rather than competition?

There are issues of doctrine such as acceptance of differing understanding of symbolic and ritualistic baptism, receiving of Eucharist and recognition of ministry that can only be understood and respected if all churches are willing to sit down in fellowship of a common belief.

The Fiji Council of Churches and Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji need to demonstrate their collective Christianity by finding ways to reconcile and embrace each other as fellow pilgrims on the road, fellow workers in the vineyard. Perhaps the younger can learn from the older and at the same time offer fresh insight into the faith needs of their people.

Interfaith Search Fiji exists to promote not syncretism but dialogue and mutual respect for different faith traditions. However, this organisation is ignored by new churches and barely acknowledged by mainline churches and many other religious leaders.

Perhaps the Faith and Society Programme of the Ecumenical Centre for Research, Education and Advocacy (ECREA) could direct its sustainable dialogue programme as part of ECREA’s Mainstreaming Peace strategic plan. Perhaps the Pacific Conference of Churches Ecumenism Programme could make it their contribution to the final few months of the decade to Overcome Violence.

But more than that, church leaders (at parish, community and national levels) need to begin to talk to each other about how they can work together, what issues they have difficulty with and how they can overcome these issues peacefully and amicably. It could be over a cup of tea, a prayer breakfast.

But what it requires is for leaders of the churches and religious communities to step out of their comfort zones; to open their arms and in their vulnerability recognise their commonality as human beings as children of God and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light and peace.

Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a probationer minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji’s Indian Division. All opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the opinion and policies of the Methodist Church in Fiji or any organization that Rev. Bhagwan is affiliated with. Email:

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