SAMOA COMMISSIONS TO REVIEW RELIGIOUS FREEDOM,

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MATAI
Integrity of custom, tradition to be maintained

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa, (Samoa News, March 21, 2010) - Samoa government has established two commissions in the country, one to review Freedom of Religion and the other to look at the bestowment of matai titles.

FREEDOM OF RELIGION

Samoa’s constitution calls for the freedom of religion, which is also a fundamental human right safeguarded under an International Convention already ratified by Samoa, according to a Samoa government statement over the weekend and reported earlier in the week by Samoa News.

However, freedom of religion has somehow posed a direct challenge to the autonomy of the village council. With most of the cases brought before the Court in the past, the Court has ruled in favor of the freedom of religion, with the authority of the indigenous Government found wanting, the statement said.

Furthermore, Christian authorities in Samoa have asked the government whether it is not time to review legislation pertaining to Freedom of Religion.

"Government is concerned that there are other religions yet to arrive in Samoa which strongly advocate beliefs that are contrary to Christianity," the statement said.

A U.S. State Department Human Rights report of 2009 says that a 2000 Supreme Court ruling in Samoa found that the village fono may not infringe on villagers’ freedom of religion, speech, assembly or association.

The report, released last Thursday points out that the government of Samoa generally respects the people’s freedom of religion and the Samoa constitution acknowledges an "independent state based on Christian principles and Samoan custom and tradition", but there is no official or state denomination.

"The law grants each person the right to change religion or belief and to worship or teach religion alone or with others but in practice the matai often choose the religious denomination of the extended family," it says.

According to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009 released in October last year, villages traditionally tend to have one primary Christian church, but now many larger villages have multiple churches serving different denominations.

"However, some newer, non-traditional groups face resistance when attempting to establish a foothold in a given village," the federal report says.

National Council of Churches in Samoa general secretary Rev. Maauga Motu says the commission of inquiry is a good move to stop more religions from coming to the country as there are enough already.

"Part of the church is already fed up with this many religious beliefs coming into the country and disturbing or doing this moving of people around to religions, from one religion to anther," Motu said in an interview with Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) aired Tuesday (local time).

Motu says they don’t have a problem with the different religions already established in Samoa, like the Bahai and Muslim faiths, but they don’t want any more allowed in.

According to the 2009 State Department report, a 2006 census revealed the following distribution of major religious groups: Congregational Christian, 33.6 percent; Roman Catholic, 19.4 percent; Methodist, 14.3 percent; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), 13.2 percent; Assemblies of God, 6.9 percent; and Seventh-day Adventist, 3.5 percent.

There are also other smaller religious faiths in the country, which is home to one of the world’s seven Baha’i Houses of Worship, it says.

MATAI TITLES

According to the Samoa government, it has established a Commission of Inquiry to look into ways to monitor bestowment of matai titles and to uphold the dignity of the matai system.

While the matai system is the heart of the Samoan culture, the unlimited number of matai titles being bestowed has decreased the value of the titles, where in most cases a hundred to two hundred people are bestowed with the same paramount title in a single bestowal ceremony, said the government in a statement.

"This practice has now devalued the importance of the matai system, and has eaten into the core of ‘Faasamoa’," it said.

The statement acknowledged that mass bestowment of matai titles was experienced in the past when Matai were the only ones given the right to vote during Elections. This was brought to an end when this right was extended to all Samoan citizens who have reached the age of twenty one.

Given its sensitivity, a Commission of Inquiry is being established to provide Government with quality advice on how best to legally settle this important matter, according to the statement.

The issue of many people being bestowed the same title has become a big issue of discussion by many who hold matai titles from Samoa and residing in American Samoa - with many of them not in agreement with the many people bestowed the same title.

According to the State Department’s 2009 Human Rights report, there are about 30,000 matai title holders in the country from which the candidates for parliament are drawn.

Although both men and women are permitted to become matai, only eight percent were women and matai controlled local government through the village fono which were open to them alone, the federal report says.

RNZI reporter Autagavaia Tipi Autagavaia based in Apia says that in the past, no more than four important chiefly and oratory titles were given out at a time.

But now some families have many more and it’s a concern of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi because it looks like it’s a commercial thing done for financial gain for those matais who are looking after families, Autagavaia is quoted by RNZI as saying.

How these two issues in Samoa will reflect and/or impact American Samoa remains unknown at this point, especially in light of the Con Con set to review the Territory’s constitution in June-July, this year.

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