The religious clashes disturbing a Pacific Island paradise

There are dozens of cases: buildings burned down, beatings, threats of violence and even murder; holy men trussed up and left lying on the street; roads blocked; villagers forced to leave their towns, grandmothers and babies loaded forcefully on to buses and driven away from their homes; and property stolen.

Surely all this isn't happening in relatively peaceful Samoa, a land many New Zealanders envisage only as an idyllic, friendly holiday resort?

It is, and Samoans will tell you it's been happening for a while. Unseen by tourists and casual visitors, a religious conflict lurks beneath the warm blue sky, the coconut palms and apparently laid-back island lifestyle. It is threatening the fabric of life as Samoans know it - and has implications for democracy as it is understood in this part of the South Pacific.

The conflict has arisen largely because of the emergence of a Samoan branch of the Assembly of God, a relatively evangelistic or charismatic form of Christian church, also popular in New Zealand.

This kind of church has been in an ongoing conflict with the larger and longer established churches in Samoa - the Methodist Church, Catholic Church and the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa (or CCCS).

The legal battles have been going the way of the new churches. The village of Lotoso'a this month lost a court battle after the chiefs had exiled six villagers for joining a new denomination.

So entrenched is the conflict that there have been calls for the constitution which guarantees freedom of worship to be changed to allow "new" religions to be vetted by the Prime Minister.

Before outsiders can understand the intensity of the clashes, it is necessary to understand their distinctly Samoan context.

Foreign missionaries first arrived in these islands in the 19th century and, perhaps because some of the stories the missionaries told tallied with some of the myths and legends of the islands, Christianity was quickly absorbed into the island culture.

Today the national motto is "Samoa is founded on God". Almost 100 per cent of the approximately 180,000 Samoans are Christians and religion is an integral part of the culture. Every Sunday morning almost everything closes down in the capital of Apia for the church services. Away from commercial beaches and hotel pools, in the more rural villages, bikinis, fast cars, loud music and lewd behaviour are frowned upon. Out there on Sundays there's usually no swimming or any other obviously rambunctious activity allowed, even for tourists.

The ministers of the church are relatively powerful people.

Also incredibly important in village life are the matais, or chiefs. Many Samoan villages still live off the land. One scholar described the way of life as subsistence affluence because while the people are not rich in a consumerist sense, they are adequately clothed, fed and housed.

In such an environment, a matai's position is powerful, similar to that of the head of an extended family.

"Communalism is very strong among us," says the Rev Oka Fau'olo, chairman of the Samoan National Council of Churches and previous chairman of the CCCS, sitting in his office in central Apia. The council represents mainly the big three established churches with a smattering of minor ones - the Assembly of God have not applied to join this body and Fau'olo doesn't think they're likely to.

"Therefore the individual does not exist. We belong to each other. We live as a family and our concern is for the good of the family. This is the way a peaceful life is maintained."

Samoa has a democratically elected Government but in truth its governance doesn't often extend much beyond Apia's city limits. In rural areas - and that's most of Samoa - the village chiefs are very much a power unto themselves and Samoan villages can range from the relatively democratic to cranky and autocratic.

But no matter which way the chiefs operate, Samoans are protective of their culture. They're fiercely independent and they like it that way. This autonomy is enshrined in Samoan law in the Village Fono Act (the Fono is the council of chiefs that sits in each village) which gives legal recognition to decisions made by the chiefs.

Additionally, the matai also often choose the religious denomination of their extended family which means the most powerful people in a village - the pastor and the matais - are inextricably linked.

The problem is that the more evangelical churches such as Assembly of God work very differently to the big three established churches. They're loud, they're proud and they like to "witness" - part of their mission is to draw others to their church. Often the worshippers they're poaching are the younger members of the village, drawn to the more liberal, more exciting style of service. Guitars, singing, clapping and rousing "hallelujahs" are all part of what Samoans call "the new church".

"When the new church has a meeting, lots of the other villagers stand outside and watch them through the windows," one local living on the south coast of Upolo Island says. "As though it's television or something. Why? I guess because it's interesting and musical.

"They call it 'Lotu Pati Pati', 'the clapping church'. When our village had a combined service at Christmas - all the churches and their congregations joined together - you should have seen the other congregations' faces when the Assembly of God pastor started up. His group all stood up and put their hands in the air. Everyone else was just staring; they were giggling and very surprised."

"When they started in Apia, they used to hold open-air meetings," explains Afamasanga Toleafoa, editor of the country's only independent newspaper, the prize-winning Samoa Observer.

Before he became editor two months ago, Toleafoa was a regular columnist and he has written several staunch editorials in defence of religious freedom.

"It was the biggest show in town and it was free," he says, laughing. "There were guitars and singing. Some of the young people perceive the old church as boring - where you go and sit and someone preaches at you. There they also get the opportunity to learn leadership roles and to speak in the meetings themselves, not at all like the old way."

Besides being powerful politically, religion is big business in Samoa. It is traditional for the congregation to donate money and materials to the church; they also look after their ministers by housing and feeding them and building churches.

In some denominations, donations can equal as much as 30 per cent of a family's income.

One study, based in Fiji, estimates that established churches in the Pacific Islands, have lost up to 20 per cent of their congregations to the more charismatic groups. The same researcher believes most of this 20 per cent are younger Islanders.

Fau'olo believes they are often led by other young Islanders who have returned from overseas with what he considers grand ambitions and an unwillingness to fit obediently back into the co-operative Samoan culture.

As these young Islanders slip away, the established religions lose some of their power base and contributions. Critics say that's why they're annoyed at the interlopers. Naturally, the established churches deny this.

"Even if there are fewer people, our donations go up every year," Fau'olo counters.

"In Samoa," he continues, "religion is taken by some people as a good business. These people [Assembly of God] say that if [Samoans] come to their church they don't have to give any donations. But then I see them building big churches. Quite frankly these people never do anything for nothing. I don't see them worshipping under a breadfruit tree."

Ministers of the established churches like Fau'olo say this noisy, new form of Christianity is actually causing "disharmony" in the villages.

Keeping the peace is all important in a culture where, historically, villages were often in conflict with their neighbours.

Harmony and unity are, the locals say, what Fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan way of family life, encourages.

"So when something odd takes place, something strange, that parts this communal way of life then people are very quick to question it," Fau'olo explains. "I don't mind members of our church going out to other religions but I do mind the tension this causes."

The new church members talk about freedom and rights. "But what about the rights of the people who have been there peacefully for many years, making sacrifices for the community?" Reverend Fau'olo says indignantly.

"You know, if someone comes to the pastor in the middle of the night they will be there. If someone needs a lift to the hospital, the pastor will take them in the car. Now these new religions, they disturb a peaceful flock. They are best described as sheep thieves."

In an attempt to stop the kind of disruption that so annoys Fau'olo, the matais began outlawing practitioners of the new religion. Often they would ask members of the new churches to desist - or face punishment. This has included everything from threats of murder to actual violence and beatings to banishment (a common form of punishment in Samoa whereby the offender is exiled from their home town) to a general village boycott of the supposed reprobate's business, such as a bus service.

Where there are hot heads there can also be violence. In one of the most famous cases, in October 1998, five men were reportedly hog-tied, their homes destroyed and they were then banished from the village for conducting a non-Methodist service in their village.

All in the name of harmony. "And it's harmony on their terms," argues Toleafoa. "They say this is the way we want it and nobody should disturb it. Yet they are the people doing the beating up."

There are strong feelings on both sides. Fau'olo tells the story of incidents in the mainly Methodist village of Salamumu where, around six years ago, a young man, who had recently returned from the USA, began conducting Bible classes with several other families. "The village didn't like it but they let them."

However, soon the loud music and village gossip about depravity and violent infighting at the new church got too much and the new congregation were asked to leave town.

"But they wouldn't," Reverend Fau'olo recounts. "These people seem to be mad. They said this is the word of God and we will suffer for it. There was violence and finally the police had to be called in."

After destruction of property, violence and banishment, several members of the "new" church took their grievances to a higher authority - in Apia. The only place decisions made under the Village Fono Act can be appealed is in the Lands and Titles Court or the Supreme Court.

Two years ago, in July of 2000, the Samoan Supreme Court ruled on the first of these cases, concerning the banishment of 32 people from Saipipi for conducting Bible classes on communal land.

After several rounds of litigation the "new" church won. This was due to the Supreme Court's finding that the Constitution of Samoa allows for religious freedom. The case set a clear precedent and every similar case that's made it as far as litigation since then, has found in favour of the "new" church.

And although they're reluctant, the established churches and the village chiefs have, on the whole, agreed to abide by these decisions.

"Samoans are law abiding," Toleafoa explains: "And the villages with good leadership are respecting the court's decisions. It's not happening immediately. You have to have a cooling of heads and make sure the loss of face isn't too dramatic. But often there's an eventual reconciliation and some sort of compromise. The matais might say, 'Okay, you can come back and do it - but just don't be so noisy about it'.

Toleafoa is himself a matai in his own village of Fasitootai. As a chief, he has had to deal with religious conflicts. In his own village's case he says they worked out an acceptable "bottom line" with the young men of the new church. The new congregation now leave the village to worship every week rather than doing it at home where it upsets people.

Despite this, the established churches have not yet buried the proverbial hatchet. The National Council of Churches has approached the national Government about changing that part of the Samoan constitution that guarantees Samoan citizens religious freedom. They want the Prime Minister to personally vet any "new" religions that come along.

Liberal Samoans like Toleafoa, with an eye on international opinion, believe this will not happen. "It's unthinkable and outrageous," he says. "But it does give you some idea of how powerful the churches are. However I don't think the international community will put up with that kind of nonsense. The law says no one can interfere with people's right to worship and it's as simple as that."

Clearly it's going to be a very uncomfortable fence for the Samoan Government to sit on because the conflict is a metaphor for the clash of the traditional and the modern in Samoa.

The new church is seen by traditionalists as selfish and encouraging individualism - in the same way that consumerist Western culture does.

Toleafoa agrees that the new church does seem to emphasise the individual more. "It's a personal commitment to God, rather than just something you do because everyone else does. Which is a totally different concept."

"I think religion and politics need to be disentangled here. Otherwise it makes a nonsense of the Government and the Constitution - and Samoa becomes a tyranny."