Clash over Fiji schools deepens

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Xavier College in Ba, Fiji.
The Church in Fiji is going head-to-head with the government over its oppressive involvement in private schools including the appointment of a non-Catholic principal at Xavier College in Ba.

The Catholic Church in Fiji may close its schools if it cannot resolve a stand-off with the government over the forced appointment of school principals.

Closing its 19 secondary and 44 primary schools is one of the options raised by the country’s Catholic education leaders in an emergency meeting following an escalation of government interference into their running.

The 17 January meeting in Suva was convened by the Archbishop of Suva, Peter Loy Chong, after Fiji’s Ministry for Education appointed non-Catholic acting principals to Xavier College in Ba and St Thomas High School in Lautoka.

Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Suva, Fiji.
Archbishop Peter Loy Chong of Suva, Fiji, will consider closing Church-run schools if they cannot be guaranteed to be led by Catholic principals.

Archbishop Chong told The Catholic Weekly that Catholic legal experts were working on options and he would meet again on 24 January with faith-based school representatives “to continue our dialogue and consultation”.

Ministry officials replaced religious Brothers Francis Abraham and Joseph Sabu who had headed St Thomas High School and Xavier College respectively for the past five years.
The school closures as a mass civil disobedience would be the last option should all other efforts fail, Archbishop Chong said.

Other options being considered are to continue to try to partner with other faith-based communities and the government; to “strongly insist” that selection criteria for principals must include the responsibility of supporting and promoting the ethos and values of faith-based schools; and “to take an aggressive and urgent stand on the Church’s request to consider faith as a merit when considering appointments of heads of schools”.

See related story: Religious freedom ‘paramount’ in schools

The latest appointments highlight the fact that government interference in recent years amounts to “a complete takeover” of faith-based schools according to Catholic education consultant for Fiji Br Fergus Garrett fms.

Around 65 per cent of the Fijian population are Christian while Catholics make up around 10 per cent.

Most of Fiji’s primary and secondary students are taught by private education authorities such as churches in privately-owned facilities.

But more than 80 per cent of school funding, including staff salaries, comes from the government whose education ministry says principal and other key school appointments are made through the Open Merit Recruitment System (OMRS), which does not require that school leaders be adherents to a school’s faith and its particular ethos.

Anthony Cleary
Director of religious education and evangelisation for Sydney Catholic Schools Anthony Cleary.

The Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist Churches in Fiji are now putting their weight behind the Catholic Church to force the government to allow faith-based organisations to have a say in the recruitment process of their schools.

Anthony Cleary, the director of religious education and evangelisation for Sydney Catholic Schools said the Fijian schools issue “is symptomatic of the broader issue of religious freedom”.

“Sadly, faith-based institutions in education, health and welfare are being pressured to compromise many of their key beliefs in order to secure funding or operate with government support,” he said.

“Faith can not be held to ransom. Simply, our institutions can serve both God and Caesar and must be allowed the freedom to do so.

“Faith-based institutions contribute greatly to the social capital of our nation and other nations and they must continue to do so, unhindered by those who would like to limit their core values and their influence and contribution to the common good.”

Students in Suva, Fiji
Students of St Joseph’s Secondary School, Suva, Fiji. PHOTO: Facebook/St Joseph’s Secondary School Alumnae

In a letter to Fijian Minister of Education Rosy Akbar, Archbishop Chong called for the re-appointment of the two Catholic school principals.

“Brothers Francis and Sabu are doing a fine job in these schools,” he wrote. “We humbly request that they remain principals.

“With all due respect to your office, I request that the Hon. Minister consider faith as a component of the OMRS. The faith-based school representatives believe that having a school head that belongs to our faith will enhance the school.”