SUVA, Fiji (AP) — Fiji's military-led government arrested eight Methodist leaders of the nation's biggest church group, accusing them of pushing a political agenda, a spokesman said Wednesday, in the latest round of detentions since declaring emergency rule in April.
A prominent female indigenous chief, Ro Teimumu Kepa, was also taken into police custody overnight. She had offered to host a conference of the influential Methodist Church in her province next month despite a government order to cancel it.
The military regime, led by Commodore Frank Bainimarama, took power in this Pacific island nation in a bloodless 2006 coup. It tightened its grip on power in April, imposing a state of emergency, sacking 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.
Senior church leader, the Rev. Manasa Lasaro, was among the eight Methodists taken into custody for questioning, police spokeswoman Ema Mua said. Lasaro was also arrested in June for a sermon demanding freedom of speech and subsequently released.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Neumi Leweni said Wednesday that the overnight arrests followed the Methodist Church leaders' decision to include "political issues" in the program for the church's annual conference rather than promoting "spiritual development."
"This was a clear breach of the Public Emergency Regulation and also not a matter for the church to discuss," he said. Under the regulation, meetings and protests are banned.
Leweni said the church leaders would be released when investigations were completed, but the conference was canceled.
Police said Kepa, the "paramount chief" of Rewa province, had been detained for "a form of incitement," without giving details. She had earlier written to the Methodists inviting them to hold their conference in Rewa despite the government order to cancel.
Head of the Fijian Methodist Church in New Zealand, the Rev. Ilaitia Tuwere, said church members would be upset that Kepa had been taken into custody in the middle of the night. He said the latest detentions had brought into conflict the three pillars of Fiji society — church, people and state.
One-in-four of the mostly Christian nation's 800,000 people are Methodists.