Postdate: 3/ 12/ 2003
A Times Tebbutt Poll conducted in August on the registration of new churches ( Oct 28th) showed that members of the public did not want any controls on new churches coming into the country. The poll result is consistent with the Constitution which allows everybody to practice their own religions and in some ways defies the call by some church and government leaders that there be more religious control. But now a test case is before us in the form of two Coptic Orthodox priests based in Melbourne who have arrived to start a church in Fiji. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a historic church and a member of the World Council of Churches. Bishop Suriel, the leader of the Melbourne based Coptic Church, said that they would like to start a medical centre, pharmacy and orphanage. It is hard to imagine that here is something other than what is normally referred to in religious parlance as proselytism.This is usually defined as a perversion of proper Christian witness and it occurs when an attempt is made by a religious group to divide another church or draw members from in return for the offer of material or social advantage. The exploitation of the need or weakness or of lack of education of those to whom witness is offered is a form of proselytism. Some background data on the background of this “late arrival church” could be helpful. Bishop Suriel’s secretary I am told, admitted that he had never set foot “in the region” before let alone Fiji. It is pertinent for the Coptic Orthodox as a member church of the WCC that it seeks to have dialogue and consultation with existing ecumenical partner churches in Fiji. The new WCC Office in the Pacific based in Suva has cautioned that for a historic Christian Church unfamiliar with local culture to come into Fiji more time should be spent meeting with fellow WCC member church leaders here before starting yet another church. Couldn’t they work with already established churches here? Already in Fiji there exist established mainline churches, Methodist, Catholic and Anglican which have had years of social work and witness. It is accepted good practice that any Christian Church which are not present in a region of the world could nevertheless share in mission in the area through support for the existing churches there. Lest we forget this is history repeating itself. Bishop Suriel, did not start his visit by walking around the streets and market place enquiring from ordinary people who might have deep personal needs which could be met through his ministry. Instead he called on the most highly placed chief of the land ,Tui Vuda and also President of the Republic, Ratu Josefa Iloilo to discuss his plans for Fiji. Unlike the days of Cakobau, the Tui Vuda today is already a convert but Bishop Suriel working through the President’s high office and by promise of some social advantage could have access to the hearts and minds of citizens of Fiji. This is a repeat of the 18h century missionary method; win over the chief in order to win the people. Isn’t this missionary imperialism all over again.
The memory of some of the traumatic experiences of the past persists; but there is no need to repeat the imperialistic, dominative mode of Christian mission based on power and money. Yours Rev. Akuila D. Yabaki SUVA.