3 Jun 2009

Fiji tells Methodist Church to remove 'instigators'

11:19 pm on 3 June 2009

Fiji's military regime said on Wednesday it would not allow the Methodist Church to hold its annual meeting unless the church removes politics and "instigators" from its ranks.

The ban last weekend followed a warning in May by interim leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama to the Methodist Church for its members to stop calling for a return to democracy.

The military leader seized power in a December 2006 coup. The regime says democratic elections won't be held until September 2014 so it can change what it calls the "race-based" voting system and root out corruption.

The Methodist Church has more than 200,000 members, many opposed to the government. It accounts for a quarter of the Pacific island country's population.

The regime recently arrested the Reverend Manasa Lasaro, a senior Methodist minister, and began investigations into a sermon he gave that called for peaceful protests to restore democracy. He was released without charge a few days later.

Commodore Bainimarama met with church leaders on Wednesday.

"Commodore Bainimarama said ... their reluctance to adhere to the government's request has left him with no option but to defer the Methodist conference indefinitely," spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Neumi Leweni said.

The military leader reiterated that the "government will reconsider its decision when the church leaders remove politics and the instigators", Lieutenant Colonel Leweni said.

No comment was available from church officials on Wednesday.

Under Fiji's military rule, all protests and public meetings are banned. Censors sit in newsrooms and only "positive" news can be published.

More than a dozen journalists have been arrested and interrogated for breaching the rules, and at least three foreign journalists were expelled from the country to date.