Fijian Church leaders appear in court

Nine Methodist Church leaders in Fiji have appeared in court, pleading not guilty to charges of breaching Public Emergency Regulations.

The nine leaders, including the Church's President, Revd Ame Tugaue and General Secretary Revd Tuikilakila Waqairatu, appeared in court yesterday, and have been released on bail until a full hearing on September 24.

For the last three weeks the leaders have been forbidden to speak, preach or take part in meetings, making life almost impossible for a church whose spiritual life-blood is based on gathering together. The church's solicitor is in negotiation with the police and the Fijian Government to relax the conditions for the next bail period.

Last month the Church agreed to comply with the Government's demands, cancelling this year's Methodist Conference and negotiations are proceeding with the police concerning an administrative meeting planned for August 31. Currently the Government insists that only ordained ministers (excluding the arrested leaders) should be allowed to attend, but the Church does not want to exclude lay people.

Steve Pearce, World Church Partnership Coordinator for the Methodist Church in Britain, said; "It is clear that the military government is active in the life of the courts. Where police actions contradict court decisions, the courts are reluctant to assert themselves. Negotiation and dialogue are difficult in these circumstances but the Church is clear in its wish to avoid confrontation."

Speaking to Steve this morning, the Church's Deputy General Secretary, Revd Tevita Bainavanua, expressed his frustration during a monitored phone call, saying, "We can talk about Jerusalem and Galilee but not Fiji! We are telling our people not to do anything to worsen the situation."

The Church continues to work and worship despite this situation, which is consuming much time, energy and finance, with the prospect of a long court case ahead. Traditional choir festivals will go ahead as planned, beginning August 22, although no national festivals will take place.

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