Fiji regime bans church conference until 2014

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SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Fiji’s military-led government banned the country’s powerful Methodist Church on Wednesday from holding their annual conference until 2014, accusing church ministers of spying on the nation’s military for the government ousted in a 2006 coup.

Wednesday’s move follows a ban last May on the 2009 conference and the arrest of eight senior Methodist leaders after the regime accused them of pursuing a political agenda to destabilize the government.

The government also accused the church of being in breach of the regime’s Public Emergency Regulation that bans meetings and protests not approved by authorities.

The military regime, led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, took power in this Pacific island nation in a bloodless coup in December 2006, ousting a democratically elected government. It tightened its grip on power last April, imposing a state of emergency, overturning the constitution, firing the judiciary and placing censors in newsrooms.

Dozens of opponents have been arrested, questioned and eventually released with warnings to stop their criticism of the regime, which plans to hold democratic elections only in 2014 despite international calls for a swift return to civilian rule.

Bainimarama said Wednesday that Methodist Church officials had spied on the military before the 2006 coup.

“Police have found that they were being paid as informers by the past government which indicated that politics was alive in the church,” he told reporters. “There will be no Methodist Church conference until 2014.”

There was no immediate response from the Methodist Church of Fiji, whose more than 200,000 members account for a quarter of the volatile South Pacific country’s population, and which strongly opposes Bainimarama’s regime.

The latest action comes just a day after Fiji and New Zealand agreed to begin a thaw of frosty relations by appointing senior diplomats to some of the posts in their capitals left empty by expulsions over the past 18 months.

Also Wednesday, the regime said pension payments to former Fiji civil servants who do not support the government will be stopped from this week.

“We will stop pension payments to all those who speak against the government or all citizens seen to halt government’s work on moving the country forward,” said the permanent secretary for information, Lt. Col. Neumi Leweni.

A decree stopping such pension payments was passed by Cabinet last week “to change the mindset of people who were against the government,” he said.

Bainimarama said he knew of a few people who were working with “some of our development partners, our international friends and some sections of the media to undermine the efforts of government.”

Those people were spreading wrong information about Fiji and what was happening in Fiji, he said.