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Unifying the Churches in Fiji

April 2, 2014

My name is Nikotemo Sopepa. I am long term volunteer for Global Ministries. I serve as pastor and moderator of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Suva and the Presbyterian church in Fiji. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church is a member of the Pacific Conference of Churches and believes in the dignity of human life, the importance of all creation, and the teachings of the Bible.

Fiji is situated 1,100 nautical miles (2,000 km; 1,300 mi) northeast of New Zealand's North Island. In 1986 Pope John Paul II visited Fiji and, upon seeing the serenity and tranquility of the atmosphere among the various peoples that exist in the nation, coined the saying, “Fiji, the way the world should be.” In 1987, a year after the Pope coined the famous dictum, the military took over the democratically elected government at gunpoint, and from that time till now Fiji has undergone four coups²three military and one civilian.

The main cause of the disturbance among the Fijians was ethnicity, religion, and identity as the two major ethnicities in Fiji, indigenous Fijians and descendants of migrants from India (brought by the British Colonial government in the late 1800’s), struggled to find space and place in the multi-racial Fiji.

The indigenous Fijians want Fiji to be autonomously governed by them and this has been a challenge for a nation where more than half the population is constituted by a multitude of other ethnicities. In 2006, the military again took over the government. From then until now, Fijians have yet to go to polls.

The Fiji Council of Churches (FCC) is now working on unifying the churches in Fiji. This move is vital in bringing the people of Fiji together. 58.0% of Fiji’s population is Christian, 33.7 % are Hindus, 7% are Muslims, and 1.3% are of other faiths.

The FCC believes that if Christians can unite in an ecumenical movement, there is a positive way forward for interfaith dialogue. It is hoped that this would eventually lead to a decrease and eventual eradication of ethnic and religious tensions in the country.

The members of the council believe that the FCC should be a prophetic voice in the country and must address the political, social, economic, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life for every person in Fiji.

Most Pacific island nations gained independence from colonists in the late 20th century. Today we still have a few lands and people in the Pacific fighting for independence. West Papua in the island of New Guinea is fighting for freedom from the rule of Indonesia. And in the struggle for freedom and self-determination, many are sacrificing their lives in this struggle.

West Papuans have cried to the international community for help, to the United Nations, the US, Australia, and Great Britain, but assistance is slow in coming. Indonesia began ruling West Papua in 1962 when the “New York Agreement” was signed. But the final act of sentencing West Papuan to doom came in 1963 when the United Nations Temporary Executive Authority gave total administration of West Papua to the Republic of Indonesia.

Today the churches in the Pacific/Oceania stand in solidarity with the people of West Papua in their fight for independence. West Papuans are not giving up as they fight for freedom, but they face many difficulties. Transnational mining companies have destroyed much of the land in the process of extracting resources. This may be one reason the international community is slow to come to their aid, for many of the nations on which West Papua calls are mining in West Papua with agreements signed with the Indonesian government.

Looking at these pictures of West Papuans who have been tortured as they resist, I can’t help but ask how far can people like us, who live in total freedom, stand in silence and indifference while West Papuans, humans like us, are being treaded upon and killed as if they have no right to the gift of life? How long can we enjoy life knowing that there are humans living in poverty while others live in luxury from resources extracted from their land? How can people become slaves in their own land? What can we Christians do about this?

Human dignity is repeatedly being violated. West Papuans are jailed for years without a fair trial, some for the crime of wanting to be a free people. These human rights violations have been happening for the last 50 years.

In spite of these abuses, the people of West Papua are not giving up. Their spirits are elevated to a higher level of courage with every life taken by the Indonesian military and government. The men fight for their fathers, mothers, children, brothers, and sisters. The women fight for their husbands, parents, and children. The children fight for their parents and grandparents. No one is giving up on this fight. They do not have the weapons the Indonesian military have, all they have is the willingness and yearning of one another for peace, justice, and freedom in their own land.

Please hold the people of West Papua in your prayers. We are asking fellow Christian brothers and sisters to stand with us, the churches in the Pacific/Oceania, as we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters from West Papua. For us in the Pacific, somebody else’ parents and grandparents are also ours. We speak different languages and our cultures are diverse, but we know each other as people of the Pacific/Oceania.

I write this letter sitting in my office at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Suva, Fiji, doing work for the church I am serving. But as I write, I know that in West Papua, someone is being tortured or killed for standing up against Indonesian tyrannical regime. You may not see it from news reports, for usually what is reported in regard to Indonesia is about Bali and beautiful beaches and resorts. But deep inside the heart of Indonesian beauty is the reality of a neglected people fighting for their land, identity, humanity, peace, and freedom. West Papua Merdeka! Freedom to West Papua!

There are other issues the people of the Pacific are facing. Here in Fiji we are awaiting our election in September this year. People are optimistic about the commander of the army’s (who is also the Prime Minister after overthrowing our democratically elected government) willingness to let go of power.

At St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church we uplift our nation to God in prayer. We ask God to be with those who are suffering in the nearby Pacific Island neighbor, West Papua. We give thanks to God for God’s graciousness, that we may be strengthened and encouraged to stand for justice and for what is right.

Niko Tapaeko serves as a Long­-term Volunteer with the Pacific Council of Churches located in Fiji.

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