Religion in the South Pacific

Church of the Scared Heart, Levuka, Fiji

Church of the Scared Heart, Levuka, Fiji

Religion plays an important role in the lives of the Pacific islanders, holding communities together and defending moral values. No other non-European region of the world is as solidly Christian as the South Pacific, and unfortunately it sometimes seems to be one of the most uncritical, obedient, narrow-minded, and hypocritical strains of Christianity extant on the planet. The first missionaries to arrive were Protestants, and the Catholic fathers who landed almost 40 years later had to rely on French military backing to establish missions in Tahiti, the Marquesas, and New Caledonia. In Fiji 45 percent of the population is Hindu or Muslim due to the large Indo-Fijian population.

Since the 1960s, the old rivalry between Protestant and Catholic has been largely replaced by an avalanche of well-financed American fundamentalist missionary groups that divide families and spread confusion in an area already strongly Christian. While the indigenous churches have long been localized, the new evangelical sects are dominated by foreign personnel, ideas, and money. American televangelists proselytize from TV screens clear across the South Pacific Bible Belt from Rarotonga to Fiji. Some 20 percent of Pacific islanders now belong to charismatic, evangelical, or fundamentalist religious sects. The ultraconservative outlook of the new religious imperialists continues the tradition of allying Christianity with colonialism or neocolonialism.

The established Protestant denominations are the Evangelicals of French Polynesia and New Caledonia, the Methodists of Tonga and Fiji, the Congregationalists of Samoa, the Presbyterians of Vanuatu, and the Anglicans of Solomon Islands. Catholics are present in every country. The ecumenical Pacific Conference of Churches began in 1961 as an association of the mainstream Protestant churches, but since 1976 many Catholic dioceses have been included as well. Both the Pacific Theological College (founded in 1966) and the Pacific Regional Seminary (opened in 1972) are in Suva, Fiji, and the South Pacific is one of the few areas of the world with a large surplus of ministers of religion.