Celebrating freedom of speech at 'Atenisi
Along with other staff and students from the 'Atenisi Institute, I spent a very enjoyable Friday night drinking kava with teachers from the Ocean of Light, a primary and high school run on a secular and pro-science basis by members of the Tonga's burgeoning Baha'i movement. Between knocking back the kava and singing, members of the 'Atenisi and Ocean of Light communities swapped stories about encounters with Tonga's powerful brigade of religious fundamentalists. As 'Atenisians listened and sighed, Bahai educators described visits from demented Free Wesleyan Ministers convinced that the theory of evolution and sex education classes are both claws of Satan.
It is not only Tonga's religious conservatives who have sometimes posed a threat to the Baha'i movement: in the 1950s and '60s, when the religion was establishing itself in the Pacific, colonial administrators often persecuted its members for their belief in racial equality. On the New Guinea island of Rabaul, which had the misfortune to be governed by emissaries of Australia, that ferociously racist nation, a white Baha'i teacher was first assaulted and then arrested by a drunken mob of colonists. After being found guilty of living in what was supposed to be an 'all-black village, she was deported from the country she'd made home.
In the following press release, which has been doing the rounds in Tongatapu over the last week, 'Atenisi makes clear that it support the right of the Baha'i movement and every other religion to freedom of expression, and looks forward to a discussion with one of Tonga's leading Baha'i thinkers.
'Atenisi to welcome Baha'i educationalist, and celebrate freedom of speech
The 'Atenisi Institute will host a public lecture by Nadia Fifita, the director of Tongatapu's popular Ocean of Light school, on Monday the 3rd of June from seven o'clock. Fifita will use her lecture, which will be followed by an open discussion, to explain both the Baha'i faith and the work of her school.
"We are delighted to include Nadia Fifita in our programme of public lectures for 2013," says Dr Scott Hamilton, the Associate Dean of 'Atenisi.
The Baha'i religion is one of the fastest growing in the world, but its members are persecuted in many countries.
The Baha'i faith was founded in Iran, but today that country's Islamic fundamentalist government bans Baha'is from practicing their faith, and imprisons or kills their leaders.
"Atenisi has always stood for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. By hosting Nadia Fifita we are staying true to those values", says Dr Hamilton.
'Atenisi Dean Dr 'Opeti Taliai says that his institution and the Ocean of Light school have some important things in common.
"Atenisi and Ocean of Light share a commitment to internationalism. We are both eager to expose young Tongans to the richness of overseas cultures, as well as to the richness of their own traditional culture", says Dr Taliai.
Dr Taliai explained that he wasn't a Bahai and didn't expect to agree with everything that Nadia Fifita said in her lecture, but added that disagreement was normal at 'Atenisi. "Our school is founded on debate" he said. "I hope members of the public come along, hear Nadia, and join the debate".