Church 'supported coup'

FIJI'S Methodist Church, the country's predominant religious group, secretly supported a coup that overthrew the Pacific nation's first ethnic Indian-led government, a report said today.

The Fiji Sun published a letter written by then church president Tomasi Kanailagi promising divine pardon for those in the 2000 coup who forced the removal of the late president, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

On May 19, 2000, a group of special forces soldiers seized ethnic Indian prime minister Mahendra Chaudhry and his government, holding them hostage for 56 days.

Military commander Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama declared martial law, removing Mara. Chaudhry never returned to office and the country is now led by Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase who was democratically elected in 2001.

The newspaper said Kanailagi wrote on June 16, 2000, to a group of rebels: "I wish to confirm to you my friends that there is no change in our support for the cause."

He praised them for the rebellion and said they would be remembered for their bravery.

"I wish to let you know that we must not let Fijians fight among themselves, or the Indians will have the last laugh," he said.

Fiji, between New Zealand and Hawaii, is an archipelago with a population of 845,000 people, 51 per cent of them indigenous Melanesian or Polynesian and 42 per cent ethnic Indians.

Kanailagi, who is now a government senator, would not comment on the letter.

Present church president Laisiasa Ratabacaca told the newspaper times had changed, with the church now concentrating on social issues rather than politics.

One of the government hostages during the coup, Levina Padarath, told the newspaper that although they were Methodists, their church did little for them.

"Even though the majority of us were members of the Methodist Church, none of the pastors came to visit us until towards the end of our captivity in parliament," she said.

Publication of the letter came as authorities dismissed rumours of another coup amid growing tension over the role of the military and the trial next week of Vice President Jopi Seniloli on charges linked to the 2000 coup.

A military exercise near parliament led to a rumour on Friday that Bainimarama had been arrested.

Extra police were put on streets of Suva but Bainimarama denied he was under arrest.

"People jump too quickly to such rubbish," he said.

The Government last month decided to set up a commission of inquiry into Bainimarama's actions late last year when it was alleged that he was attempting to overthrow the Government.

The terms of reference for the inquiry, or its membership, have yet to be released.