Visits to Pacific Island Nations Highlight Religious Freedom Concerns
News July 2006
Sir Frederick Goodwin, Queen's Representative for the Cook Islands, with his wife and the IRLA delegation
Port Vila, Vanuatu… Visits to several countries of the Pacific during July have highlighted concerns for religious freedom, according to representatives of the International Religious Liberty Association. While issues do not reflect the excessive violations of some parts of the world, and generally freedom of conscience is guaranteed in the various island constitutions, concerns remain, says Dr. Jonathan Gallagher, IRLA Deputy Secretary-General..
"It's important to emphasize the general respect for religious belief in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Vanuatu," Gallagher comments. "However in conversation with both state officials and religious leaders we were made aware of some causes for concern, such as the conflict between individual rights and what are seen as community responsibilities. Some minority groups and individuals have definitely been discriminated against, with believers denied the opportunity both to practice and witness to their faith in local situations. This has even led to outbreaks of violence, such as the stoning of church members and the burning of homes."
Local cultural traditions assign much control to local village councils, and majority faiths often exercise influence, adds Pastor Ray Coombe, IRLA representative for the South Pacific region. "We have heard first-hand accounts and have examined court reports that give a sometimes disturbing perspective on the limitations of religious practice in the name of communal harmony. While we certainly appreciate the need to work together with the local community, it's disappointing when freedom of conscience it denied and the right to practice religious beliefs is refused."
Vice-president of Fiji (2nd L) with Adventist representatives
Coombe and Gallagher had the opportunity of meeting with high-level state representatives in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Vanuatu that included the Vice-president of Fiji and the Deputy Prime Minister of Samoa, along with a supreme court justice, a commissioner of human rights, a supervisor of elections, and CEOs of governments ministries, together with church presidents, council of churches leaders, and the head of the Fiji Muslim league.
In this context they urged greater attention to fundamental freedoms, in particular the freedom of belief and practice of religion, and the creation of organizations and mechanisms to help protect liberty of conscience. In Fiji a newly-established committee will examine the possibility of starting a national religious freedom association with broad representation from the various religious communities. [IRLA News]