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New faith grows in a vehemently Christian nation

JO CHANDLER | Global Mail

Muslims at the entrance of the Hohola mosque (Photo - Vlad Sokhin)LIKE SO MANY MOSQUES around the world, the one in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby became a lightning rod for explosive distress and anger against Islam in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, back in 2001.

But there was no comfort for the city’s then-fledgling Muslim community in the proximity of a major police station just across the road. Indeed the spray of gunfire that peppered the dome of the mosque – the bullet holes still visible today – reportedly came from high-powered weapons fired by officers stationed there.

In an overwhelmingly and often vehemently Christian nation, where the Parliament last month passed a motion to explore outlawing other faiths, and in which Evangelical and Pentecostal preachers who openly revile Islam hold sway over swelling congregations, PNG Muslims endure discrimination and sporadic violence, says Dr Scott Flower, a Melbourne University Islamic specialist who lived at the Port Moresby mosque for six months as part of his research.

Back in 2001 the number of Muslims in PNG was fewer than 500. Recently published research by Flower, drawing on his analysis of records of Muslim congregations across PNG, now puts the figure above 5,000 – that is, a 1,000 per cent increase. This rise has stirred tensions, despite Islam still factoring as a tiny minority within PNG’s estimated 7 million people, over 96 per cent of whom identify as Christian.

Port Moresby’s crowded urban settlements and remote highland villages, where Islamic practice has found a neat fit with cultural traditions such as polygamy and the rituals of fasting and feasting, have proved fertile ground for Islam and evolved a unique Muslim community. It is almost entirely made up of home-grown converts to the faith – rather than immigrants, as has been the pattern elsewhere in the Pacific.

But the deal brokered last month by Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart, Peter O’Neill, which will see PNG process asylum seekers and resettle all those identified in the next 12 months as genuine refugees, will soon change that – although by how much depends on how many boats come in the next year. If the policy works promptly as a deterrent, refugees settled might number in the hundreds or low thousands; if not there could be several thousand, although Prime Minister O’Neill has responded to a fierce backlash in PNG by telling local media that nothing is “written in stone” and that PNG would protect its national interests.

Regardless, for the next year at least it’s likely that “the growth of the Islamic community in PNG will be predominantly through the asylum-seeker policy,” says Flower – although the scale and pace of change depends on how effective the strategy proves to be in deterring asylum-seekers from trying to reach Australia.

An influx of foreign Muslims, says Flower, “might have different sorts of impacts – it could facilitate further conversions, given that you’ve got a larger active population of born Muslims coming in.” However Flower suspects most refugees will be concerned less with proselytising, at least in the short to medium term, than with trying to secure their livelihoods and settle their families. These ambitions alone may prove destabilising in PNG, where almost 40 per cent of the population lives below the $1-a-day World Bank poverty line, 94 per cent of them in rural areas, surviving largely courtesy of their garden crops.

Flower echoes the concerns of many local commentators and outside experts about the potential for volatility in creating a special class of resettled refugees, provided for at the expense of the Australian Government. Australia has allocated $236 million out of its aid budget over the next four years as “support for unauthorised maritime arrivals living in community-based arrangements” in PNG. Meanwhile local citizens have no social-security support or pensions, and access to basic services such as medical care, power and clean water is extremely limited.

“This is a country that is already rife with jealousy and material inequality,” says Flower. These tensions are blamed by many community leaders and commentators for fuelling epidemic social and domestic violence. Jealousy is frequently cited for provoking accusations of sorcery, brutal witch trials and killings, and was explicitly identified as a motivator in the beheading of a former schoolteacher, women’s activist and accused witch, Helen Rumbali, on Bougainville in April.

While traditional PNG societies were famously diverse (the nation has 850 languages) “one thing they did share … was that material wealth was highly distributed and regulated through custom,” says Flower. “The modern economic system has shaken all that up, and that is one of the big factors in the violence and disputes as it is. You throw something like this [the asylum-seekers deal] in the mix and you have people ticked off that [refugees] have some sort of special privileges, and then you have conflict between them.”

Imam Mikail Abdul Aziz, the Nigerian-born Head Imam of PNG, has told The Global Mail (by phone) that his community will welcome the refugees. “We cannot say no. They have problems, that is why they come … so we look after them, they are human beings. We will give them a proper place to worship, schooling and halal food.”

The imam says he is concerned at the portrayal in some quarters of the new arrivals as a terrorist threat, and the potential repercussions of this belief on his community. Flower anticipates that many of the refugees would likely be moderate Muslims themselves escaping persecution from hardliners in their home countries.

Contemplating the influence born Muslims from the Middle East might have on PNG’s existing Islamic community and wider society, Flower warns that, “Pentecostal churches in PNG are vociferous in their opposition to Islam”, and that this tone is also widespread in politics and social media.

“Polemical things are being sent around to incite people against Muslims, so this feeds into the mix in terms of the religious and social response to an uptake of asylum seekers. For me this is the biggest worry.” He stresses that local Muslims have remained peaceful despite attacks.

Pastors in many of the smaller, fundamentalist churches now proliferating around the country – they are growing at about an equivalent rate as Muslim ranks – rely on their flocks for their income. “This is a competition not just for religious adherence, but a competition for money. I hate to use the term ‘radicalising effect’ but it does happen, on both sides.”

The asylum-seekers issue has riven PNG’s Christian community. Mainstream, established churches – who are also losing their congregations to new, fundamentalist sects – have urged tolerance and acceptance (PNG’s Catholic bishops spoke out opposing the proposed ban on non-Christian religions) while condemning the asylum-seekers deal as “very unwise”.

“While Papua New Guineans are not lacking in compassion for those in need, this country – unlike Australia which is a stable and thriving nation of immigrants – does not have the capacity at this time in its history to welcome a sizeable influx of refugees and provide for their immediate needs and a reasonable hope for a new and prosperous beginning,” says the bishops’ spokesman , Father Philip Gibbs.

Disillusionment and confusion at the competition between Christian churches, and inconsistencies in their theology are key drivers of conversion to Islam in PNG identified in Flower’s research, which he details in a forthcoming book.

“PNG people are quite fanatical about theology, they actually read the bible. They can quote chapter and verse. And the contradictions they find in the bible are another major reason why people told me they converted,” Flower says. Those bothered by the contradictions between bible texts and the teachings of various denominations are drawn to the clarity of the message they find in the Qur’an.

But the single biggest factor driving conversions, according to the accounts collected by Flower, was the synergy of some aspects of its practice with old cultural ways. They identified over 40 different aspects of Islam that resonated with their traditional beliefs. Just as Christian missionaries had looked for similarities between Church and customary values and rituals, and exploited these to draw people into the fold, Islamic missionaries capitalised on male-dominated traditions in areas such as the rugged highlands. There, Islamic missionaries say, “It’s okay to have four wives – you don’t get eternal damnation for that,” says Flower.

“They take salvation very seriously in PNG. So to be able to have their traditional political economy through multiple wives, as they do in the highlands, but still achieve salvation in the hereafter, that’s important,” he explains.

One Seventh Day Adventist preacher from the highlands province of Enga told Flower he believed that, “In the next 30 years all the PNG highlands will become Muslim because our culture is Islamic” – a scenario that reverberates through a lot of anti-Islamic dialogue in PNG’s political and media realms.

Some converts told Flower that they had initially hoped that Islam might pay off for them, given its links to Middle Eastern wealth. “I asked ‘Did you come because you expected cargo?’, and some said, ‘Well, initially’ … but then they were told to focus on living a moral life so that they could go to the after life, and that this was more important than cargo. So while they came to the religion for material dimensions, says Flower, what they actually gained was a coping mechanism for the reality that they don’t have material gain, that Western capitalist society doesn’t provide for everyone.

“It’s a very complex story. But those are the main themes – the cultural, the material, and then the theological dimensions.” Interestingly, despite the disenfranchisement of many people in PNG, particularly the young, Flower’s research didn’t identify political motivations as a powerful influence on the decision to explore Islam.

If boatloads of asylum seekers keep endeavoring to reach Australia and find themselves beached permanently in PNG, the longer-term consequences “are hard to pick”, says Flower. “What we do know from diaspora studies is that first and second generation migrants often experience a strengthening of their traditions or cultural/religious identities as part of adjusting to life in a new society.

“There is a clear trend in the literature. When you are part of a minority in a foreign country, you stick with people who you identify with.” This way of living already resonates deeply in PNG society, which is a cultural patchwork of ethnic minorities defined by kinship and “wantoks” (one-talks, or language groups); disparate communities living separately but together.

The question, as articulated in a lengthy post on PNG’s busiest Facebook political forum this week by the creator of the Sharp Talk site, Douveri Heno (also a lawyer and executive director of the PNG Business Council), is “if [asylum seekers] are going to be our new PNG wantoks, will their presence continue a legacy of a nation with many tongues, or contribute to global indicators as a poor, resource-rich country with spiraling law and order problems?”


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Steve Gallagher

Frank and Barbara - You guys need to read Koran too. I read the Bible, Torah and Koran so I have a fair idea. Allah is the same God. Jews called Him Jehovah.

That's why we called Judaism, Christianity and Islam Abrahamatic religions. Read more books so you have a open and broad mind to understand the realities of the world.

Frank K Daosak

Yes, Barbara, the Bible does clearly state that there is only one true God who has revealed himself to us true his son Jesus, and that doesn't quite fit well with the Allah of Islam. They are two very different Gods.

Peter Kranz

Barbara - Muslims broadly accept the Gospels of the New Testament, as well as the Pentateuch of the old. It's all in the Quran. I urge you to read it with an open mind.

Mrs Barbara Short

Steve, I think you will find the Muslims only follow the Old Testament of the Bible. I suggest you have a read of the Bible's New Testament.

I once met a lady who was brought up as a Muslim. When she became a Christian she told me how wonderful it was. It was just like moving from Darkness to Light.

Peter Kranz

Robin - interesting comment.

Maybe the old Greeks had it sorted. Many Gods with many personalities and behaving just like us. Jealous, vindictive, capable of great generosity, and making good material for superhero epics.

Maybe Xenophanes had it right -
"But if cattle and horses and lions had hands
or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,
horses like horses and cattle like cattle
also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies
of such a sort as the form they themselves have."

Robin Lillicrapp

The notable feature of the "monotheistic" religous groups is their claim to worship only one god.

A notable feature of the world of religion today is the drive toward a grand ecumenism: a blending and merging of expression and tolerance. It is intended to bring about tolerance amidst diversity of faiths with an end result of global unity: Tolerance, Diversity, Unity.

This falls in line with the global political agenda to also blend and merge peoples of different backgrounds to create a global village unified in all aspects. It's a kingdom-building exercise along humanistic lines with an intended outcome of defining deity of whatever religion to be altogether equal with each other. (refer to U.N.Temple of Understanding founded along occult Theosophical principles)

It is also noteworthy that in the lead up to the return of Jesus Christ a "dark" leader, antichrist, sets himself up in the rebuilt Jewish temple in Jerusalem and causes all to worship him as God. Death is the penalty for refusing.

It is at this time that the treasured perceptions of the monotheistic religions will be trashed. They will realise the deceit and treachery of the incumbent overlord. The followers of monotheism, so to speak,will face a defining moment : take the mark and live or refuse and perish.

As a believer in the deity of Jesus Christ, by His work and not mine, I am assured of deliverance already and so confidently await the hour of His return for the Body of Christ, the body of believers currently residing on earth. This body is forged from all who bow the knee to a sole Saviour and Redeemer; not, as in the modern trend, a religous corporatism redefining and diminishing the identity and role of Jesus to become indistinguishable from any other figurehead of religion.

Many facets of modern society combine to reduce the importance of identifying with the Saviour. The link below might be encouraging to those who are torn between doubt and deliverance-:

Steve Gallagher

Allah said that "I am the Lord, your God you shall have no other god before me".It is written in the Three Holy Books, Koran, Bible, and Torah so can man change this law?

We Muslim do believe that Jesus is the Major profet and not God because we cannot change Allah's law.

I think it's good that we respect other people's faith, this is an act of a wiseman.

Allah bless Christians, Jews and Muslims we are all followers of Abrahamatic religions.

Just a message to Barbara- I suggest you should hold your faith but should respects others faith too.

Mrs Barbara Short

My message to Steve Gallagher - Suggest you study the Bible - 1 John 4: verses 1-3 - Christians believe that Jesus was and is fully divine. Moslems believe He was just another prophet.

Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Messiah. Jews, who follow the traditional Jewish religion, do not recognise that Jesus was the Messiah.

But there are some Messianic Jewish people in PNG at the moment who, I have been told, do believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Some of them are involved in Goshen projects.

Steve W Labuan

Please let me try help out on the definition of 'lain'.

For all of us, the best way to understand words is to look at them from the angle of their functional use in context and rather than from a prescriptive (standard rules/grammar)angle.

I use the term 'lain' as "..a lose word whose meaning is similar to but not restricted to 'wantok'".

'Wantok' is one who can understand another through the same language(s), and includes all items of affinity mentioned by Kranz above; as well as friends and/or members of all smaller geo-political units and their larger affiliates - that is from the family unit, to the village, LLG, the district, province, country, Melanesian race and through to the pacific island countries when members of these find themselves in new units elsewhere.

'Lain' includes wantoks, plus members of the more micro non-wantok social interest groups including religions, faiths, politics, professions, clubs,unseen spiritual affiliates etc).

I feel awkward explaining this: Something is seriously funny about it all in the first place. It's like, even-though PNG is the richest country in the world on language-resources, (apart from non-renewable resources)it has no language policy to nurture & harvest for its languages.

The absence of a language policy is the pivotal point most of our development problems especially the present education impasse. What a joke. But that's something else.

For the time being, we may use terms anyhow we want, as long as they are made comprehensible by contexts of use, or by other means creative.

Asylum seekers? Naturally, we already have a term for them now that they are a group within our midst.

Peter Kranz

Rose says "lain" means tribe. Your family, your community, where you belong. Your people.

So it's broader then the family tree.


Peter Kranz

Tony - I struggled to understand the meaning of the pisin word 'lain', as in 'lain blon mi', or 'lain blon yu.'

I now think it means something like a family tree - ancestors and their descendants.

Correct me if I am wrong.

My understanding is that ti is any group (especially tribal ro clan) that has some type of affinity - KJ

Tony Flynn

Steve Gallagher shows us the acceptable face of Islam. We could co-exist with this reality.

Disputing the basic tenets of the relative faiths will get us nowhere. Steve’s reality does not exist in the Middle East.

When a Shiite scratches a Sunni, or vice versa, we can expect what we see in the Middle East today. Quite similar to what happens between the Catholics and Protestants in Belfast but far worse. They bomb each other for Islam's sake.

It may not be the way of Steve Gallagher's Islam. It is the way of these refugees that have been spat out of the Middle East like pips from a squeezed orange.

We are not facing refugees from Steve’s reality; there would be no refugees. These are real people from real conflicted areas, all carrying baggage of their bitter experiences; baggage that PNGians do not want to inspect too closely, we do not know what will spring at us.

Sunni’s will hate Shiites and Shiites will hate Sunni’s wherever they settle. Do we want this here?

There is an aspect that PNG can appreciate. I put on the table the idea that the Middle East is a mish mash of Clans and Big Lines; the choice of a sect by the ancestors has led to enmity between the clans being reinforced by their allegiance to different sects.

Peter Kranz

Come on people, do some research. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three great Abrahamic faiths. They share much in common - including most of the old testament.

In fact Christianity has more in common with Islam than Judaism.

They both accept the Gospels (well broadly speaking). Jesus is the second greatest prophet in Islam, whereas to Jews this is heresy.

The difference is that Muslims don't accept Jesus as the son of God (Heresy, as God can have no equals), but is nevertheless a great prophet.

Consider this from the Quran -

"O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah."

And this -

"We sent after them Jesus the son of Mary, and bestowed on him the Gospel; and We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him Compassion and Mercy ..."

Steve Gallagher

I just want to informed all those who misunderstand Islam. Islam in Arabic means, submission while Muslim refers to the belivers of Islam faith. Muslims do worship the same God Allah or Jehovah but the only difference between Christianity and Islam is that, Islam is pure and not paganised or westernized. I suggest you guys should study more about religions, the history and all there actors involved.

The Koran does not tell Muslims to do evil, bu to honor only God and abide by his word.

The anti west development that is happening in Middle East is a act of so called Islamist (Racical Muslims who used Religion for the personal gains). Others, they see that Americans and Westerners have forcefully trying to bring their own civilization into the Arab World which has caused conflict of civilization.

I want to make it clear here that, not all muslims are terrorists, not muslims are Al-Queda, Tallibans, Muchizeens,ect... These groups do have rights to fight but they used an extreme method which is not good according to the Islamic faith. I read Koran and the Holy Book does not tell me do do that.

Muslim way of life is simple, healthy and peaceful with the nature and God. I think Christianity has the same beliefs and values but So-Called PNGans Christians act contridictly.

After all, we are all free PNGans, and we have the free will to dicide our faith in this free World.

One day, PNG Muslims and Christians will stand together to defend their country, We are all PNGans.

Muslim By Faith

Steve W Labuan

Forgive me my ignorance about the Islamic faith.

But Tony Flynn is right in stating that, "Only a fool will predict the future" in context of the term Islam, especially with the views Papua New Guineans already have in their heads right now. There's a lot of truth, in that with Islam reality for PNG will definitely change. No doubt.

In this ill informed head of mine I see that:

. where ever Islam is - Moslems aggressively push to take over not only souls, but also rules, laws, cultures and even governments;

. there is no such things as meek & moderate Islam or extreme Islam; rather just a growing process of Islamic faith;

. faith and reality is one - because one creates the other.

So with Islam PNG will have two or three dominant realities competing - something which Christianity has been enjoying, and which almost all PNGeans are used to so far.

It is best for O'N, KRudd and the others to either have all Moslem A.S & refugees sent to settle in Islamic countries eventually, or let them settle in PNG but use the law and have the majority rule for the dominant religion, and let the future care for itself.

Alvin Toffler in the last century was very right in predicting what most people thought couldn't be; he said of this century , "..(humans) are being invaded by the future".

At least we now know two things; that we can't predict the future for a happy Christian side-by-side living with Islam, and that whatever the future is, it is within us.

Tony Flynn

It sounds all very reasonable, tasol; the Sunni and Shia sects are at each other’s throats. What is going to happen when the Sunni settle in a certain area and the Shia in another?

PNG already has inter-tribal conflicts; they can be resolved by exchanges. What happens when irreconcilable religious differences are mixed in?

Are the Provinces to take equal shares of refugees? I don't see Bougainville accepting any; will this go down well with other Provinces?

Will the Highlands become a Shia stronghold and Momase Sunni? In a hundred years’ time will PNG be generating more waves of refugees for Australia and other countries to cope with?

It is likely that the Sunni will be settled far as possible from the Shia or are we only to settle one of these in PNG; the other to be settled in another island state? This could lead to the Balkanisation of the Pacific producing further waves of refugees.

Does anyone believe that these two sects will be somehow become reconciled in the Promised Land of PNG?

What is the allegiance of the present mosque, will they feel threatened by the new arrivals who may be a different sect. Please do not hold up developed countries as examples of Islamic coexistence; they do not have our ethnic divisions to leaven the dish.

Christian nations went through their own religious wars hundreds of years ago and they were vicious: nowadays we do not see Christian clerics involved in murdering members of another sect as an article of misguided faith. Our extreme bigotry finished long ago.

Can anyone tell me when the Islamic schisms will be resolved and peace and brotherhood reign over all. Will it be in two years, ten years or one hundred years?

It has been in existence for very many years and only a fool would predict the future. Take off your rose tinted spectacles when you examine PNG’s future under the refugee settlement plan.

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