‘Time is right for reconciliation’ – Fiji’s Methodist Church seeks to mend race relations

Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma's President Reverend Ili Vunisuwai
Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma's President Reverend Ili Vunisuwai (right) with Fiji's Assistant Minister for Women Sashi Kiran in Suva . . . "seeking forgiveness". Image: Methodist Church In Fiji and Rotuma/RNZ Pacific

By Rachael Nath, RNZ Pacific journalist

The Methodist Church of Fiji is seeking forgiveness from the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, or Girmitiyas, for the transgressions of the last 36 years.

The racially motivated violent coups of 1987 and 2000 and the military coup d’état of December 2006 have left a permanent scar on race relations within the country.

The 1987 and 2000 coups were supported by the church’s then-leadership.

But in a historic move, the church is launching a 10-year campaign to heal the wounds of the past — starting with an apology to coincide with the inaugural Girmit Day celebrations next Sunday.

Reverend Ili Vunisuwai is leading the official apology at the national reconciliation service on May 14 as the head of the largest Christian denomination in Fiji.

“The time is right to launch a campaign for national reconciliation and give the people of all races a chance to confess their weaknesses,” Reverend Vunisuwai said.

“Let’s seek forgiveness from those they regard as their enemies. We strongly believe that by confession with pure hearts and humility, our transgression can be forgiven,” he said.

“As we look back, the dark days of social upheavals of coups of 1987, 2000 as well as 2006, and then, unfolding events of hatred and discrimination, which resulted in fear and uncertainties, I think there’s a lot to be done by the church to bring the two races together.”

The timing of the event has much significance as the country of under a million people marks 144 years since the arrival of the first of more than 60,000 indentured labourers or Girmitiyas as they later came to be known.

Girmitiyas were brought to Fiji between 1879 to 1916 by British colonial rulers to work in plantations across the island.

As a result of the indentured labour system, Fijians of Indian descent make up the second largest ethnic population in Fiji today — slightly over 34 percent, while the iTaukei or indigenous people comprise 62 percent.

Chair to the Girmit Celebrations, Assistant Minister for Women Sashi Kiran, is calling the apology efforts a start of a peaceful future for the nation.

‘We acknowledge the pain’
‘I’m very humbled, and I’m very, very touched at the strength of the Committee and of the leadership of the Methodist Church,” Kiran told RNZ Pacific.

“They’re willing to look at the problem in the eye and say, ‘Well, let’s talk about it. We apologise, we can’t change the past, but we are sorry for the hurt that we have caused’.”

But while Kiran accepts the apology from the church, she acknowledges that many in the Indo-Fijian community may not be ready.

“Any pain cannot be underrated,” she said. “What people went through was their pain, and it’s their journey so by no means can we judge what people are feeling or going through”

“We acknowledge the pain. We acknowledge the pain of the past,” she added.

Methodist Church of Fiji and Fiji's Assistant Minister for Women Sashi Kiran
Methodist Church of Fiji’s Apisalome Tudreu and Fiji’s Assistant Minister for Women Sashi Kiran . . . “We ask you to please open your hearts and open your inner feelings” plea to Fijians . . . “Let’s work on healing.” Image: Methodist Church In Fiji and Rotuma/RNZ Pacific

However, she admits that events of the past cannot be undone, and the way forward is through healing.

“In the interest of healing the nation, in the interest of future generations that they born into a healed nation…we ask you to please open your hearts and open your inner feelings,” she appealed to Fijians.

“Let’s talk about it [past atrocities], and let’s work on healing and come into that space.”

She said it was also “okay” for those people who still “need time” to heal from the racial troubles, adding “at least we begin to talk about this.”

Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who has publicly apologised for his actions in 1987 repeatedly, accepts that many will still remember the dark past that made him notorious worldwide.

“The man that we did not want to know about, we shied away from his name, addressed us…and he does not bite, he’s not an angry young man,” Rabuka told the 12th World Hindi Conference in Nadi in February.

“He is just an old man who understands the feelings of the descendants of the Girmitiyas who are now his age, looking at their grandchildren and children growing up in the land they now call home.”

RNZ Pacific asked Reverend Vunisuwai why it has taken the Methodist Church of Fiji 35 years to apologise to the Indo-Fijian community?

“The current government has allowed the celebration of the Girmitiyas, and that’s probably a good time for national reconciliation regarding all the upheavals of the past 30 years or so.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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