Concern for Church following Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth

British Methodists have expressed solidarity with Methodists in Fiji following the country's expulsion from the Commonwealth yesterday.

The Methodist Church in Britain called on the Government of Fiji to allow the Methodist Church to exercise its right to freedom of religion and play its part in developing a healthy and just society for all people.

Steve Pearce, Partnership Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific, said: "Things are becoming increasingly difficult for the Methodist Church in Fiji and I think there are real grounds for believing not only that the military Government is slowly crippling the Church, but that it is doing so intentionally.

"The UK has a long-standing and fruitful relationship with Fiji and we are keen for it to continue. We are blessed to have many Fijian members in the Methodist Church in Britain and value their contribution to the life of our Church. Our prayer is that the beautiful islands of Fiji may soon see free and fair democracy, freedom of speech and independent justice."

The grave concern follows a number of restrictions made on the Church by the Fijian Government over the past few days. The Church's annual Conference was blocked, permission for the choir festival was denied preventing one of the main fund-raising activities of the year and speaking restrictions on the senior leadership have frustrated the day-to-day business of the Church. It has also been made clear that the activities of leading Methodists are being monitored, creating an ongoing feeling of unease.

The President of the Methodist Church of Fiji, Rev Ame Tugaue, the General Secretary, Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu and seven other church leaders appeared in court on August 12 to enter a plea of 'not guilty' to charges of attending an unauthorised committee meeting. They have been ordered to report to the court again on September 24 and a trial is set for November.

Methodist and Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley Meg Munn recently returned from an official visit to Fiji. She reported a great deal of gloom about the prospects for an early return to democracy and serious financial problems for the Church. As well as additional costs for court and legal fees, the Church has lost around £330,000 income because of the cancelled Conference and choir festival.

There are already problems relating to Methodist schools and the ability to pay teachers. However, a fundraising campaign among Fijians in the US and Australia is proving successful.

Steve added: "I encourage Methodists in Britain to consider raising this issue with their MPs and their local media. People need to be made aware that a national Methodist Church is being crippled by its government. We can do many things to challenge it, what we cannot do is nothing.

"The Methodist Church is by far the largest faith group in Fiji and this may be the reason why other Churches have not been treated in this way. It may also be that the aim is a very much smaller and less influential Methodist Church."

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