The Jamaica Observer, Sunday, July 21, 2002
AUCKLAND (AFP) — The people of the Pacific are drifting quickly away from mainstream Christianity and towards a world of cults, with what some say was a God-inspired coup, faith healers advising kings and pentecostalists running pyramid money schemes.
The growing influence of religious figures from outside the more traditional spheres was highlighted last year when thousands of people from neighbouring countries converged on Samoa to see visiting holy-rolling American faith-healer Benny Hinn.
Hinn also had an audience with head of state Malietoa Tanumafili II.
Tonga’s King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, constitutionally the head of the Methodist Church, is also known to use a New Zealand faith-healer.
The impact on the political scene was further highlighted in May when Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said he was in power “because it was God’s plan”.
A 2000 coup overthrew the Indian-led government of Mahendra Chaudhry and Qarase said God wanted that government terminated.
“The same thing will happen to us if we don’t follow God’s plan,” he warned.
German political scientist Manfred Ernst told AFP from Suva’s Pacific Theological College that mainstream Christianity was rapidly being overtaken among many religious communities around the region.
In 1994 Ernst produced the landmark Winds of Change study, which revealed the dramatic changes to Christianity in the Pacific. It was based on six case studies and is now being revised to include comprehensive data on all 16 Pacific island nations.
Ernst says that, based on anecdotal evidence, the pace of change appears to be increasing.
“It is a question of relevance; what the historic mainline churches have to offer is not any more relevant to the needs and expectation of their members. They are not able to change because they are so conservative; no willingness.”
The mainline churches include Anglicans, congregational-based churches, Methodists, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.
The new religious groups (NRG) include Assemblies of God, Brethrens, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, varieties of Baptist churches, revival groups, pentecostalists and a bewildering array of breakaway groups from the mainline.
Ernst said the new Fiji government was actively involved in the formation of a new umbrella Assembly of Churches, which was supplanting the mainline Fiji Council of Churches.
“The reason for that is that many of these (NRGs) groups supported the coup, openly, and they were not happy with how the ecumenical churches responded to the coup,” he said.
Ernst described the NRGs as tending to support the status quo, a result of a “very narrow, literal interpretation” of the Bible.
Charismatics and pentacostalists tell their Pacific followers “it is more important to prepare yourself for the second coming than doing anything immediate”, he said.
Liberation theology never quite made it into the Pacific, Ernst said, but the new groups are bringing in a “gospel of prosperity” which touts a view that God wishes health and wealth in this life for all true believers.
The latter is particularly so with American-style churches and the new wave of radio and television religious broadcasting hitting Pacific states.
The new study will also look closely at the religious battles under way in Papua New Guinea.
Famous once for its cargo cults, Ernst said they were finding that the pentecostalists were involved in a modern variation on that theme — pyramid money schemes.
To his surprise they were also finding surprisingly strong evidence of satanic style cults in high schools.
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