On Archbishop Chong's Criticism of the Constitution

The Archbishop's Ordination, 8 June 2013
By Crosbie Walsh

I am more than a little perplexed on two counts by Archbishop Chong's criticism of the 2103 constitution. First, by the criticism itself which I think misplaced, and secondly by its purpose that leaves me rather worried.

The Archbishop agrees that the constitution upholds religious liberty, but it also states that religious belief is personal. He sees this as preventing the church from publicly stating its beliefs.

 If religion is limited to personal matters, he says, "you are infringing on people's rights to freedom of expression. If the church wanted to speak out about human rights in the pubic sphere, it would be seen to be violating the constitution."

Thus, according to the constitution, he continued, the church cannot be involved in party politics; it cannot support a party or tell a congregation which party they should support. "Our role", he says, "is to make people aware of the current situation in Fiji."

I had to read this several times. Does the Archbishop really think it is the church's role to make people aware of "the situation"? Does he think he, or the church, has a special insight about what the current
situation is?  Surely he cannot be claiming that priests should use the pulpit to tell their congregations how to vote?

If so, it is no wonder the Methodist Secretary-General Rev. Tevita Nawadra, agrees with him. I'd hoped the new Methodist leadership had turned its back on political involvement after supporting the 1997 and 2000 ethno-nationalist coups. But this is apparently not so. Nawadra looks to the future. "Maybe, when we have a new constitution", he mused.  And the Archbishop has given him a leg up.

I wonder where this reasoning may lead. Will other Christian denominations also wish to engage in party politics? Will the Methodist Church tell its members to vote for the old SDL party in its new guise? Will the Muslim League and the Arya Samaj form their own parties? Where will it stop? Is Fiji to replace a divisive political system based on race by an equally divisive one based on religion? Stressing differences will not help much-needed national unity, or Fiji's path towards democracy.

This leads to my second question: why has the Archbishop made this statement at this point in time? The church in Fiji —or, indeed, in any other commonwealth country to my knowledge— has never previously supported a political party or shown any wish to do do.

It has publicly supported some policies, particularly in the area of social justice, and opposed others, most notably on abortion, gender orientation and contraception. But it can be argued these policies lay within the orbit of the church's traditional mission in matters of "faith and morals." Thus, former Archbishop Petero Mataca's co-chairmanship of the People's Charter dialogue and Fr Kevin Barr's chairmanship of the Wages Council demonstrated the church's concern with social justice. Supporting the yet-to-be-formed Bainimarama party or the United Front for a Democratic Fiji will do nothing of the sort. 

Does the Archbishop's statement herald a change in church policy? Is he using one section of the constitution (that I will argue he misreads) to attack the constitution as a whole, and in so doing, attack the Bainimarama government and cast his lot in with Bainimarama's opponents?

I hope not because this is not the role of the church; there are too many shades of grey to paint the situation in blacks and whites,  and the Archbishop has misunderstood what the Constitution says about religious rights.

The Government's "non-negotiable" principles when it set up the Ghai Commission stated that Fiji must be a secular state. This means that the state would have no role in promoting or impeding any particular religious belief. Several submissions to the Commission, including an early submission by the SDL party —but not including, it should be stated,  by the Catholic Church— favoured Fiji becoming a Christian state. Had such a provision been included in the Constitution, an injustice would clearly have been done to the 30-35% of the population that is not Christian.

So what does the Constitution say on religious belief?

The relevant section reads (with my highlighting for emphasis):

"Freedom of religion, conscience and belief
1) Every person has the right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief.
(2) Every person has the right, either individually or in community with others,
in private or in public, to manifest and practise their religion or belief in worship,
observance, practice or teaching.
(3) Every person has the right not to be compelled to—
(a) act in any manner that is contrary to the person’s religion or belief; or
(b) take an oath, or take an oath in a manner, that––
(i) is contrary to the person’s religion or belief; or
(ii) requires the person to express a belief that the person does not hold.
(4) Every religious community or denomination, and every cultural or social
community, has the right to establish, maintain and manage places of education whether or
not it receives financial assistance from the State, provided that the educational institution
maintains any standard prescribed by law.
(5) In exercising its rights under subsection (4), a religious community or
denomination has the right to provide religious instruction as part of any education that
it provides, whether or not it receives financial assistance from the State for the provision
of that education.
(6) Except with his or her consent or, in the case of a child, the consent of a parent
or lawful guardian, a person attending a place of education is not required to receive
religious instruction or to take part in or attend a religious ceremony or observance if the
instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion that is not his or her own or if
he or she does not hold any religious belief.
(7) To the extent that it is necessary, the rights and freedoms set out in this section
may be made subject to such limitations prescribed by law—
(a) to protect—
(i) the rights and freedoms of other persons; or
(ii) public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or
(b) to prevent public nuisance."

Section 1 establishes the general position on freedom of religion.
Section 2 deals with the Archbishop's concerns about the private and public spheres.
Section 3 protects individuals against coercion.
Sections 4-6 concern religious organizations and education.
Section 7 places limits on religious rights and freedoms.

Similar limitations are mentioned in other parts of the constitution for obvious reasons. PM Bainimarama, replying to the Archbishop's statement, said the limitations were to prevent "hate speech and incitements to violence". Those who recall the actions of some Methodist leaders in the 2000 Speight Coup will be well aware that such limitations may again be needed.

Bainimarama also said that section 22 (2) could not be more clear, and I must agree.

I remain perplexed about Archbishop Chong's statement. Earlier, he said he had not read the Constitution, but surely he must have read it before making this recent statement. He cannot possibly have misread its meaning. Why, then, did he speak as he did of the Constitution, and claim for the Church the right to engage in party politics, which is quite a different matter altogether?  I really do not know. 

But, whatever his reasons, his commnents will thrill those who, for many different reasons —some honourable, others less honourable— oppose the Bainimarama government.

And they will leave many Catholics really puzzled.

The Archdiocese of Suva includes Fiji and Rotuma and the suffragan sees of Rarotonga, Niue, Tarawa and Nauru.
Catholics in Fiji
Second largest Christian denomination, about 15% of Christians and 10% of the population.
Membership (%): iTaukei 75; Indo-Fijians 5; Others 10.
Geography: Over-represented in Namosi and Serua provinces in Viti Levu and Tunuloa (E.Cakaudrove) and Wainikeli (Taveuni).


Anonymous said…
Peter Loy Chong is a menace who is on a collision course with the Government. He doesn't appear to have even read the Constitution before making these ridiculous comments. You'd think that his Jesuit training would give him even a modicum of intellectual vigour. Sadly that is not the case. A big disappointment.
Another zealot said…
Why be perplexed, Croz? The Archbishop has made his vile prejudices very public. The better response is surely anger that this person opposes a secular state and thinks that his particular brand of religion is superior to that of any Muslim or Hindu. He's a bigot masquerading as a champion of religious freedom and democracy, just like the equally vile Methodists.
Anonymous said…
The ongoing attacks on Christianity by the illegal Bainimarama junta and coup apologists blogs like this one are a serious concern. In the last few days the world has witnessed the terrible result of attacks on Christians in Pakistan and Kenya. We have seen the same in Egypt. The courage and conviction of Archbishop Chong to stand up to these attacks is to be applauded. The world needs more people of his courage and integrity to return the attack those who are trying to destroy democracy and freedom. Thank you for your courage and conviction Father Chong.
Buddha the One Who Knows said…
The Kenya attack was not an attach on Christians; It was an attack on Kenya in retaliation for Kenya's 2011 invasion of Somalia and attack of the terrorist group.

The conflict in Somalia/Kenya goes way back, and simply can't be distilled into Christian vs Muslim. In fact, 99% of the victims of the terrorist group Al Shadab are muslim... all their attacks in Somalia are on Muslims, and they have been fighting in Somalia for decades.

Of course now and then they want to use "Christian vs Muslim" as a recruitment tool, so they say an attack is only on Christians (like the recent Kenya one), but in reality, their true aims have nothing to do with religion.

Don't try to use conflicts elsewhere to justify your deep-rooted hatred of Muslims. The only reason Fijian christians have to dislike muslims is for their noisy mosques and economic prosperity (christian jealousy). Fijian muslims have not done anything to invite hatred of fijian christians.

Kaisi bokola!
Fed up with all of them said…
Anon, you really are a bloody fool. The Government isn't attacking anyone. It is making religious belief a personal choice instead of what these bigots wanted, which was the imposition of a Christian state. This was precisely the agenda the Archbishop was pursing, along with his fellow bigots in the other churches. Well bugger them. Fiji is going to be a secular state whether they want it or not. I'm fed up with the Roman Catholic Church. They have no cause to be sanctimonious about anything given their appalling record of child abuse. This has been more than amply documented across the world and I'll wager is as big a problem in Fiji as anywhere else, maybe more so because sex with minors is so routine generally. I'm all for the PM standing up to this upstart, who speaks for no-one except his own flock. He should look after them and let the rest of us get on with our own lives and pursue our own beliefs. What this is all about is the threat to the power and influence of the churches that they perceive in the Constitution, not their ability to worship publicly. And I hope Bainimarama fights this battle for tolerance with all his might. The rest of us who aren't bigots are behind him all the way.
Anonymous said…

It is important to remember that Frank is not really against the church (any church) playing a role in politics. He is only concerned and against the church when it rally against him or his party. If churches toe the line and supports Frank for PM in 2014 all will be fine.
Anonymous said…
Anon above I think you have a point here. Religion and politics are always very closely linked everywhere in the world. Looking a bit over the horizon we learn that last weekend the Christian Democratic Party of Angela Merkel has just won the German elections. Now Croz would probably argue that Germany is not a democracy, but I still believe that separation of faith and politics is practically impossible.
Reality said…
Self appointed PM has come out and again said he will form a party (by April 2014) and win. I have no doubt he is right...

Sure enough Bainimarama will win. Any other outcome would create a few problems for him and his brain Khaiyum. Imagine the old SDL and FLP would make it: As things in Fiji go, there would be pay back, big time pay back for all the humiliation and material losses that many suffered from Bainimarama’s hands. So when he says he will win, he just states the obvious. Remember he controls all preparations for the elections, he makes the rules, his soldiers will “assist” at the polling stations, he will control counting of votes and last but not least, Khaiyum surely has some tricks up his sleeve to exclude serious competitors from standing. There is indeed little precedent in history that a dictator just hands power to a freely and fairly elected democratic government.

Anonymous said…
Catholics where all the rage when the previous boso was chair of building a better fiji (the one that recognised the constituion as the ultimate law before franks through it out...and the one that highlighted need for transparency....also ignored by franky boy)
Anonymous said…
But I think everyone has missed the point. Who advised the Archbishop to make a comment that was so obviously incorrect? Why did he, an educated man, speak in such ignorence thus exposing his own limited knowledge? How embarassing for his unfortunate flock. And who could his legal advisor be?
Pope Innocent IV said…
To make it even worse, he admitted his ignorance while making the statement:

"I haven't read the constitution, but..."

I wonder how he would feel about me lecturing him "I haven't read the bible, but I think "
fool me once... said…
this latest version of the so-called 'constitution' is only another decree away from whatever the regime wants on any particular day... i hardly think it is etched in stone...and that is why many wouldn't trust this self-serving bunch of talentless cronies to be open and honest about their true intentions.THis will last as long as the next coup... then we start again...

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