China and PNG in the era of Pacific Rim instability

The challenges facing Islam in Papua New Guinea

Photo by Vlad SokhinFR FRANCO ZOCCA SVD | Extracts
Fr Zocca’s complete paper, Islam in PNG, here

THE first Muslims to arrive in Papua New Guinea came as labourers in the early 1900s. They worked in plantations run by German and British colonists.

Their presence was again recorded much later in 1972. Three years later, when PNG gained its independence, the Muslim population of approximately 120 was exclusively expatriate, mostly diplomats from Malaysia and Indonesia…..

In 2012, Scott Flower estimated the number of indigenous converts to Islam at 5,000. During my visit to the Islamic Centre of Port Moresby in February 2013 I was given an estimate of 4,000 Muslims, three-quarters of whom were PNG citizens.

While at present the great majority of local Muslims are grassroots people, a significant number are professionals such as teachers, civil servants, soldiers and police, LLG presidents and ex-students from Christian theological institutions. Expatriate Muslims are often highly educated people working in foreign embassies and higher education institutions…..

Objections to the presence of Islam in PNG started as soon as the application for its registration was lodged in 1981. Several politicians expressed their opposition to Islam spreading in the country. Justice Minister Paul Torato is quoted as having said:

Islam is in contradiction with the Constitution of PNG; it teaches extremism; it is an immoral religion and if allowed it will cause conflict among the people of this country.

In 1982 the then prime minister Julius Chan said on the radio that he would never allow Islam to exist on the soil of PNG and that he would oppose it with all of the powers available to him. He was supported by the Home Affairs Minister Andrew Kumbakor, who stated:

Islam is a dangerous and very serious threat to peace and unity of this great nation. The advent and propagation of the Islamic religion will be a future time-bomb for PNG. PNG must remain a Christian country for a better future.

In 2000, the future PNG Governor General Paulias Matane stated: “It is not in the interest of this country to have to grapple with a religion that encourages holy wars”.

Church leaders also expressed hostility towards the presence of Islam in PNG. Pamphlets were circulated in which it was stated that Muslims must kill Christians in order to go to heaven. Even the Catholic Archbishop of Port Moresby, in 1987, raised his voice against the spread of Islam in PNG.

He bluntly asked why the government had employed Muslims at the University: “Were they there to teach students or propagate the religion of Islam?”

In a public briefing paper entitled The incursion of Islam into Papua New Guinea: a warning, released in 2000, the PNG Council of Churches (PNGCC) argued that the government should protect Christian congregations by banning Islam.

Perhaps those who opposed the spread of Islam in PNG were not aware that the few injunctions in the Koran that clearly legitimise violence by Muslims relate to situations where the practice of Islam is limited or banned!

That proposal to ban Islam from PNG was opposed by the majority of the members of Parliament and church leaders, who publicly supported the constitutional freedom of religion in PNG. MP John Pundari spoke for all of them when he stated in Parliament:

We in this country must be aware of our law and Constitution that respects people’s rights to choose religious affiliations and the rights of speech and movements within this country. Mr Speaker, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Christianity and every single religion have rights in this world.

In our country, by our Constitution, we recognise that right. Mr Speaker, it is not for us to be undermining that individual right of our citizens in this country. I believe that we have to allow tolerance of religion in this country, tolerance and respect for human rights and human freedom.

Unfortunately, after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre of New York in 2001, hostility towards Muslims also grew in PNG. The mosque in Port Moresby was attacked both by the police and a member of the public.

Muslim converts were harassed in the streets, a few had their houses and mushallas burned down and their jobs terminated. Again there were calls on the government to ban Islam entirely.

The following year, 2002, Deputy Prime Minister Alan Marat stated that “a sensible government is expected to do something about the violent behaviour of individuals based on their beliefs” and he proposed “changing the country’s constitution to ban so-called violent religions”.

But this time too the call to ban Islam from PNG was resisted. Even the PNG Council of Churches, in contrast with its previous statements in regard to the spreading of Islam, stated that “ Islam had a right to exist in PNG as long as the Muslims did not cause disharmony in the community.”

The case of West Papua was also raised in 2005 by pastor Daniel Shayesteh from Tari as a warning of what could happen to PNG. After its annexation by Indonesia in 1963, hundreds of thousands of Muslim immigrants arrived in West Papua from Java, Celebes and other islands, which considerably altered the composition of its population. According to the 2010 Census, a quarter of all people in West Papua were Muslim.

The cause of Islam in PNG was certainly not helped by conflict in many Islamic countries in the last decade. Continuous infighting and suicide attacks among the different groups and strains of Islam, and the harassment and even persecution of Christian minorities in many countries ranging from Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Middle East, to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, have tarnished the claim of Islam to be a religion of peace.

On top of that, murderous attacks perpetrated by self-declared Muslims in non-Islamic countries like the United Kingdom and Spain have prompted the international and PNG national community to continue to depict Muslims as fomenting violence, and Islam as being an aggressive religion.

New criticism against the presence of Muslims in PNG arose in 2013 after the decision of the PNG government to allow the processing of asylum seekers on Manus Island, and their possible resettlement in PNG.

Since many of the asylum seekers were Muslim, people were afraid that their resettlement in PNG could create religious tensions.

There were again moves before Parliament, introduced by Hela Province Governor Anderson Agiru, to declare PNG as being a country only for Christianity, a declaration which was supported by many Christian leaders across the nation.

In July 2013, an editorial appeared in The National newspaper in which PNG people were reminded that according to the PNG Constitution there cannot be any discrimination based on sex, race or creed.

And then the editorialist reported statements of prime minister O’Neill, according to which his decision to allow asylum seekers to be screened in Manus was based on Christian principles, and that to alienate another religion would itself be unchristian. And then the editorialist went so far as to write:

In practice, this country probably needs Islam. It certainly needs the religion’s strict discipline, which Christian Papua New Guinea sadly lacks. But some of its extremist tendencies, such as the jihad movement, this country can very well do without…..

The promotion of the moderate form of Islam should be a priority in Papua New Guinea, pursued by both civil and religious authorities. This goal should be helped by declarations coming from Muslim religious leaders that Islam is a religion of peace and mercy that rejects violence and terrorism in its name.

Muslim leaders should declare their support for complete freedom of religion, not only for Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries, but also for Christians, Jews and other religious minorities in Islamic countries.

Similar declarations might help to put to rest the negative propaganda of the present mass media in regard to Islam while enhancing mutual trust, dialogue and cooperation. 


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Kurumbi Wone

PNG and West Papua including all Pacific island countries, don't you see that your world is sinking? Don't you see that your life has been gambled away by your prostitute leaders? Don't you see that the white man has completely corrupted your minds?

Don't you see that you all of you don't have your own voice, mind and agenda for your country? Don't you see that you are dying and yet you don't know that you are dying.

All your proud ancestors warriors are very ashamed of what you have turned into. All of you are doomed - your destiny is extinction unless you redeem and heal yourself and realise who you truly are and take 100% charge of your world.

What you think you are now is not what you truly are. You are a product of European colonial programs. They have successfully reprogrammed your entire brain so you need antidote to heal yourself so that you can see things clearer and understand that your world is sinking.

Ab Khan

Whats going on in the middle east is western sponsored for the destruction of these countries.

G B Teine

Be careful how you comment on Islam if you do not know much about it.

We are living in a global community therefore we need to be tolerant of one another. Everyone has a right to choose what religion they want to follow.

If you are a PNGean, biblical Christianity landed on the shores of your country more than one hundred years ago so get grounded in the truth, but take a look at your country's constitution on religious freedom and you will be in for a surprise.

This is intended to serve as a reminder to all that we are heading for a big time with Islam in PNG - The Crest invading the Paradise of the Cross.

Anguwe Tainda

Albert Schramm. This is not your country. You are not a citizen. You are a foreigner on a work contract.

PNG is a Christian nation. I know you must have read our national newspapers about what happened on 16 September 2015.

The Bible has been placed in the chamber of the Parliament as the foundation of this country. This speaks to the nation that PNG is truly a Christian country which we believe in God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit.

Next non-Christian religions will be banned in PNG because Christians are praying no other religions but Christianity.

Anguwe Tainda

PNG is blind to allow the Islam religion to exist in our country. Very surprising to see Papua New Guineans converting to Islams and tolling to 5,000.

Look at the countries in the Middle East and in Africa. Read world news and websites and find out for yourselves what is going around.

The government must ban Islam in PNG. I love PNG and it's for God.

Comment edited to remove inflammatory remarks - KJ

Starza Paul

It's the choice of an individual to choose what religion and belief her or she wants to follow.

Islam in this case is just like any other religion and we shouldn't speak so harshly about it.

We should, as Dr A Schram as mentioned, be tolerant of any religious group.

Samuel Roth

Despite Muslim nations that promote harmony and denounce Jihad, extremism is inevitable and predominantly a norm in most Muslim nations.

So where do we draw the line between freedom of religion as a matter of human rights and prevention of extremism and terrorism?

If policy cannot handle this now, as it seems, it will never help because this trend is universal and phenomenal, not just a PNG-problem.

Bernard Yegiora

Barbara, interesting point!

Ron Kone

Was Sir Paulus an MP? I don't think so...

True, Ron. He was a bureaucrat and diplomat but never a politician. That error has been corrected - KJ

Barbara Short

And now Qatar Airlines is looking for cheap cabin crew labour in PNG.

There are probably few PNGns who have much knowledge of life in Qatar and especially the strict laws of an Islamic country.

Albert Schram

We must at all times promote tolerance and dialogue among people of different faiths.

Our fundamental values are the same. Since before independence, academics of Muslim, Hindu, Budhist, Bahai and other faiths have made an important contribution to the development of our university, and their religion should never been an issue.

They are not with us to convert anyone, and they are doing their jobs very well.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)