Samoa tense as Christian sects clash with traditional leadership

A religious and legal conflict is threatening Samoa as villages across its Pacific isles defy court orders and demand the right of chief-led rule and adherence to established Christian churches.

"Customs and culture was in Samoa before the arrival of the constitution and churches and the government," an articulate champion of matai or chiefly power, Nonumalo Leulumoega Sofara, said as his village this week lost a court battle against the exiling of a group of men.

His defiance is standard as established churches battle for adherents in the face new religious groups growing in popularity.

Across the country dozens of families practising the wrong kind of Christianity are being driven out of villages, their homes destroyed behind them.

Day-to-day political power has always resided with the village matai in Samoa and although there is the national government and a constitution its writ tends not to run much beyond the capital, leaving law and order in the hands of the village fono or council.

London Missionary Society missionaries arrived here in 1830 and within months the whole group had signed up.

Over the following decade most Samoans either belonged to the majority Congressional Christian Church or were Methodists, Catholics or more recently Mormons.

Those churches were quickly integrated into village life with religious elders often the same matai who ruled the fono while pastors were also made fono members.

Samoa constitutionally declares itself a Christian state, "Samoa is founded on God" is its national motto, but to traditional authority God is best represented through the old churches and the arrival of new pentacostalist and at times fundamentalist religious groups is threatening the old order.

In village after village adherents of the new religious orders are being exiled which is a terrifying prospect here in which all land and property is seized and the people driven out on the orders of matai.

In the past resistance to exile has often led to death.

In recent rulings the courts in Apia say that matai are wrong because the constitution guarantees freedom of worship.

"Under ... the constitution of the Government of Samoa, chiefs and orators have no power or authority to stop or forbid the holding of Bible classes or any other forms of worship that are new, in any village," one recent High Court ruling said.

But matai, backed by mainstream churches, are reluctant to give up power creating stand offs that split villages and are liable to spread tensions nationwide because there is a drift to new denominations.

Nonumalo is a former speaker of parliament but is adamant where real power rests.

"Traditions and customs ... is the authority of the chiefs and orators.

"What the chiefs and orators wish is what will be done," he said this week following a court ruling against his village of Lotoso'a, west of here, which had exiled six villagers for joining a new denomination, called Worship Centre.

"They have authority over the village, authority over people, authority over property."

He said the six would not be allowed back to the village, despite the ruling.

The conflicts are sweeping Samoa.

A wave of banishments has hit Falealupo, just east of the International Dateline and the last place to see each day end.

Dozens of families have been physically forced out for attending a Bible group. A banished matai Aeau Tapu said they were told to either leave or "be burned to death."

The village of Samamea in isolated Va'a O Fonoti district has now banned new religions.

"The decision of the ali'i and faipule (chiefs and orators) doesn't ban freedom of religion," the local MP, Leao Tuitama told the Samoa Observer.

"It was a ban on the setting up of new religions in Samamea," Leao said.

"Having more than one religion would disrupt village harmony."