Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Enshrining Religious Tolerance in Fiji (unedited version)


This story was edited and published for some reason under the title "A World of Dialogue" in the Fiji Times "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan" on Wednesday 28th March 2012 it is presented here in its full form.

As our country’s attention shifts to the upcoming constitutional process (albeit with a brief distraction of the Hong Kong 7’s), most of the commentary and responses to the announcement of this process have focussed on the political and electoral aspects of the future constitution. Of course that is because everyone is looking (even sceptically) towards the 2014 elections.

Important points regarding the future role of the military, social and economic rights, the method of the proposed consultations and pre-election education process for young people are already being raised for consideration in the planned constitutional process. The way human rights are enshrined in the new constitution is also a very important issue.

In this column two weeks ago, I shared an extract from former US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech on the Four Freedoms. The second of the Four was the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.” This freedom was incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 18: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and 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.”

This freedom was guaranteed in the 1997 Constitution’s Bill of Rights (Chapter 4 Section 35(Religion and Belief).

Perhaps the time is right for us as a people to think deeply about the importance of religious tolerance in our country and how we can ensure that this issue that has been and maintains the potential for massive divisions in Fiji can be properly addressed in the process to develop a new constitution.

There have been many examples at the grass-roots level as well on a national level of positive influence by religious groups and institutions – social justice programmes, awareness campaigns, civic education – the promotion of high morals and compassionate behaviour and the like.

These good deeds, however, have been overshadowed by negative actions over the last three decades – political interference, religious intolerance, systematic attempts to impose one religion on others.

Intolerance and conflict is not limited to differences of religion (inter-religious) but also to issues such as doctrine, rituals, power and finance, within religions (intra-religious).

Sadly, this is most obvious among the wide Christian community – the largest religious grouping in the country. Differences of doctrine, methods of evangelism, proselytism of members of other Christian denominations (sheep-stealing), clashes in personality, power struggles and perceived or real political agendas have led to a fragmentation of the “Body of Christ” in Fiji. Evidence for this can be seen in the formation of organisations like the Assembly of Christian Churches in Fiji, the lapse of the Fiji Council of Churches and the emergence of break-away churches.

Recently, a friend of mine involved in disaster management in the aftermath of the flooding we experienced, lamented the inactivity of the Fiji Council of Churches, which had been a transparent and efficient partner with DISMAC during times of natural disasters, particularly in terms of coordinating churches for information and distribution of relief aid.

Add to this intra-religious turmoil, a lack of appreciation or tolerance of other religions and you have fertile soil for prejudice and religious bigotry – insults (such as calling someone an “idol-worshipper”) or even worse the desecration of religious of worship, and religious violence.

The fact that religion, for the most part in Fiji, is also connected to ethnicity and culture can lead to religious tension affecting ethnic relations, and vice-versa. The majority of the i-Taukei are Christians, while most Indo-Fijians, as Hindu or Muslim, belong to other world religions. Of course such tensions make things very difficult for the minority of Indo-Fijians that are Christians and those i-Taukei that belong to other religious communities or small new religious movements. The same can be said for the other ethnic groups in Fiji. One only has to look to the island of Rotuma where small wars took place between Catholics and Methodists in the 19th century; as well as the murder of Rev. Thomas Baker, because of perceptions about Christianity and political domination of Bau.

Living in Asia, where Christianity is just one of many world religions (in fact a minority and sometimes oppressed religion) has reinforced my view that tolerance and understanding in a pluralistic country such as Fiji is crucial to the “peace and prosperity” for which this nation searches.

The strange thing is that many of us have relatives and friends who either belong to a different denomination or religious community.

I may be an anomaly as a Methodist minister, with a Roman Catholic wife, Anglican children (including a Goddaughter and Godson) and relatives who are not only Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, but also Sanatani, Arya Samaj, Sai devotees, members of the Fiji Muslim League, Baha’i and agnostic. However, pluralism within the family or extended family is becoming an accepted norm, no matter how hard conservatives fight against it.

Why then is religious tolerance accepted within the family or the community, but not outside it?

For a number of years, a small group of people dedicated religious tolerance and understanding have met on a monthly basis to share what the scriptures of their faith have to say on a particular topic or issue – from the subject of integrity to the issue of HIV and AIDS. The group, Interfaith Search Fiji, is not about syncretism or the mixing of religions, but about creating understanding and appreciation through dialogue.

Unfortunately this small but successful model has not yet been accepted or endorsed by the main religious groups and has on occasion been criticised by fringe groups.

This however does not have to be the end of the story.

Is it not possible that religious tolerance is not only covered by the Bill of Rights, but also be enshrined in our new constitution, through a mechanism through which dialogue within and between religions take place? A mechanism such as a National Council for Religious Tolerance and Cooperation or a Fiji Assembly of Interreligious Tolerance and Harmony (FAITH) could not just provide a safe space for dialogue but also provide the platform for cooperation on social, health and other issues as well as assist in the mobilisation of communities in times of natural disaster.

The seeds of religious tolerance have been planted through the recognition of significant holy days such as Christmas, Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday, Lent, Holi, Easter (both Good Friday and Easter “Resurrection” Sunday), Ramadan, Eid, Diwali, etc by convention as well as by legislation.

As we begin the process of growing a new constitution (even if the seed is the People’s Charter), each one of us is called to nurture this plant until it is a tree from which we all can eat.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


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