Concern for Church following Fiji's expulsion from the Commonwealth

British Methodists have expressed solidarity with Methodists inFiji following the country's expulsion from the Commonwealthyesterday.

The Methodist Church in Britain called on the Government of Fiji toallow the Methodist Church to exercise its right to freedom ofreligion and play its part in developing a healthy and just societyfor all people.

Steve Pearce, Partnership Coordinator for Asia and the Pacific,said: "Things are becoming increasingly difficult for the MethodistChurch in Fiji and I think there are real grounds for believing notonly 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 andwe are keen for it to continue. We are blessed to have many Fijianmembers in the Methodist Church in Britain and value theircontribution to the life of our Church. Our prayer is that thebeautiful 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 theChurch by the Fijian Government over the past few days. TheChurch's annual Conference was blocked, permission for the choirfestival was denied preventing one of the main fund-raisingactivities of the year and speaking restrictions on the seniorleadership have frustrated the day-to-day business of the Church.It has also been made clear that the activities of leadingMethodists are being monitored, creating an ongoing feeling ofunease.

The President of the Methodist Church of Fiji, Rev Ame Tugaue, theGeneral Secretary, Rev Tuikilakila Waqairatu and seven other churchleaders appeared in court on August 12 to enter a plea of 'notguilty' to charges of attending an unauthorised committee meeting.They have been ordered to report to the court again on September 24and a trial is set for November.

Methodist and Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley Meg Munn recentlyreturned from an official visit to Fiji. She reported a great dealof gloom about the prospects for an early return to democracy andserious financial problems for the Church. As well as additionalcosts for court and legal fees, the Church has lost around £330,000income because of the cancelled Conference and choirfestival.

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

Steve added: "I encourage Methodists in Britain to consider raisingthis issue with their MPs and their local media. People need to bemade aware that a national Methodist Church is being crippled byits government. We can do many things to challenge it, what wecannot do is nothing.

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