Web Published: February 2001
Also Published: 1996 Bahá'í Studies Review, 6, 1-10.
Communities in the diverse nations of the Pacific Islands have emerged in the
four and a half decades since the launching of the World Crusade (1953-63).
Being comparatively new, they have not always been accurately represented in the
literature. While such Communities as Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, and Tonga have
grown rapidly, those in French Polynesia and
the Cook Islands have for some reason remained small. To speak generally,
however, Pacific Island Bahá'í Communities have established in their first
four decades the most prominent public profiles within their countries of any
Bahá'í Communities world-wide - apart perhaps from that of the Bahá'í
Community in Iran. In recent years the emphasis has changed from simple models
emphasising numeric expansion, to more developed ones that also consider issues
of Community and Institutional Development. Pacific Island Bahá'ís are
increasingly lending their expertise to the challenges of leadership, and the
traditional roles of pioneers are consequently being reassessed and redefined.
Despite ongoing challenges presented to these Communities by the forces
of political confusion and social decline that are affecting all Pacific
Islandsâ Societies, the Bahá'í Communities are uniquely positioned to act as
a positive moral force in the decades immediately ahead.
The message of the Universal House of Justice at BE 153 draws on these
strengths, and is calling on Pacific Islandsâ Bahá'í Communities to
undertake collabarative programs at regional as well as national and local
levels. These calls are made in the context of a Îspiritual axisâ which
Shoghi Effendi said joins the Bahá'í Communities of the Îantipodesâ and of
ÎNortheast Asiaâ, and which incorporates too the more recent Communities
that have emerged in the Pacific Islands.
At Ridvan 1996 the Universal House of Justice sent a
message to the Bahá'í Communities in 25 ÎPacificâ countries.
The purpose of this paper is to place these Communities in cultural and
historical context, and to highlight, however briefly, some of their current
challenges. It is quite possible that some of these Bahá'í Communities have
the most prominent public profiles within their countries of any Bahá'í
Communities world-wide, apart from that of the Bahá'í Community in Iran, which
is obviously well known to all Iranians. They
are remote, and their unique physical environment is more ocean than landmass.
Scattered among the Melanesian cultures of the Southwest Pacific (Papua New
Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia), the Polynesian cultures to
the east (Tonga, Samoa, and French Polynesia - Fiji is a mixture of Polynesian
and Melanesian cultures), and the Micronesian cultures of the north (Kiribati,
Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Caroline Islands, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam,
Belau and others), are ÎAnglo-Pacificâ cultures in Australia, New Zealand,
and Hawaii. Due to their remote location the diverse Island cultures were among
the last to be influenced by Îmodernisationâ.
But whereas they were colonised and missionized, and their contemporary
social and political structures now reflect national constitutions and Christian
values, the continuing strength of their cultural heritages has allowed these
Îmodernâ societies to nonetheless retain vital elements of traditional
(pre-Christian) values, beliefs, and practices.
Bahá'í communities were established in Australia, New
Zealand, Hawaii, and Tahiti during the ministry of Abdu'l-Bahá. His Tablets
of the Divine Plan listed eighteen island groups in the South, North and
Eastern Pacific Islands. By
1953 Bahá'ís also resided in Fiji, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. Soon
after the commencement of the World Crusade in 1953 twenty-one pioneers to the
region were named as Knights of Bahá'u'lláh. The first Local Spiritual
Assemblies (LSAs) were established in the metropolitan centers: in Suva in 1950,
Rarotonga in 1956, Honiara and Apia in 1957, Nuku'alofa in 1958, Port Vila in
1960, and Noumea in 1962 (an Assembly established in Papeete in 1958 was not
sustained in the early years). By April 1957 there were over 100 Bahá'í
centres in the Australia and New Zealand, and a further 210 in the Pacific.
The Regional Spiritual Assembly of the South Pacific was established in 1959
with jurisdiction over 10 island groups. By 1963 there were thirty-six LSAs, 127
localities, and some 1,550 Bahá'ís in the South Pacific (800 of whom were in
the Solomon Islands).
During the Nine Year Plan (1964-1973) the number of territories open to
the Faith in Australasia increased to 33, and the number of National Assemblies
to 11. The Regional Spiritual Assembly of the South Pacific Islands evolved in
1964 into the Regional Assemblies of the South West Pacific Ocean (Solomon
Islands, New Caledonia, Loyalty Is, New Hebrides), and the South Pacific Ocean
(Fiji, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Nauru).
Individual National Assemblies emerged from these Regional bodies between 1967
and 1985. By 1988
there were 730 LSAs in Australasia and a total of 2,866 localities. Although
official figures have not been published, David Barrett's "World Religious
Statistics" in the 1988 Britannica
Book of the Year (1988, p.303), enumerates 59,000 Bahá'ís in Oceania. Now
among the significant religious communities in the Pacific, Bahá'í activities make occasional appearances in Pacific
Islandsâ literature, although they are not often themselves the focus of any
In some Pacific nations Bahá'í Communities emerged rapidly, while in a
much lesser number growth has been negligible. In the nations that experienced
rapid growth the first developments were often sudden and dramatic, and were
accompanied by degrees of misunderstanding on the part of government officials
as well as persecution on the part of Christian missionaries anxious at the loss
of key adherents. Such commentators as anthropologists, missionaries and
administrators familiar only with traditional Christian approaches to
Îmissionâ had trouble accounting for the appeal of the Bahá'í message, and
for its rapid transmission in the absence of trained missionaries and mission
stations, schools, hospitals, and transportation networks. Occasionally Pacific
Bahá'í communities were judged ineffective because such expectations were not
met. The Solomon Islands government, for instance, anticipated a surge in
membership in the Western Solomons following the conversion of prominent
Methodist Belshazzar Gina - but only if the Bahá'ís also provided health and
medical services equal to those run by established missions. Charles Forman,
Professor of mission history at Yale University, noted in a survey of
"sects from abroadä:
mission to find in this group is that of the Bahá'í. Stemming from a reformist
movement in Islam and appealing mostly to intellectuals in the West, with a
message of interreligious unity and international, interracial harmony, they
seemed poorly adapted to growth among vigorously Christian, practical peoples
with little cosmopolitan experience. Yet a certain amount of response was
forthcoming from some youths of wider experience and education and from some
village folk among whom their missionaries settled. They had some noticeable
response in Fiji, Kiribati, the Solomons, Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu. Probably
their greatest single increase came in 1966 when they won the adherence of Tommy
Kabu, leader of an important modernising movement in the Purari river area of
Papua, along with many of his followers.
A common theme in the conversion of the Tommy Kabu of Papua, Apelis
Mazakmat of New Ireland, Hamuel Hoahania of Malaita, and Peter Kanare Koru of
the Gilbert Islands, was their attraction to the racial equality practiced by
the pioneers, and their desire to implement such equality in their societies.
When former Catholic seminarian and mission teacher Peter Kanare Koru
became the first Gilbertese Bahá'í in Tarawa in 1954, Shoghi Effendi urged him
in a letter of welcome be "very discreet in spreading this Message",
explaining that the Bahá'ís did not wish to become a "source of discord,
or arouse opposition". But events took their own course. The Catholic mission
worked to have pioneers Roy and Elena Fernie deported, and on several occasions
used its journal, Te Itoi nin Ngaina,
to "warn" its members against examining this new religion. Roy Fernie
was deported from the Colony in November 1955 while Elena Fernie remained until
1956 working with the new, 200-strong, Bahá'í community. Kanare was
prohibited from remaining on either Tarawa or Abaiang, and returned to his
island of Tabiteuea.
In Samoa and Tonga the first Bahá'í s were well educated, and some had
trained in theological colleges. Niuoleava Tuataga of Western Samoa, who was
educated at a Catholic mission school and at the LMS Malua theological College,
became a Bahá'í in 1958, and later served as Auxiliary Board Member. Lisiata
Maka, a legal adviser in Tonga's lower and supreme courts, who become a Bahá'í
1957, was among the first Islanders elected to the Regional Assembly, and was
later appointed to the Continental Board of Counsellors. In the Solomon Islands Hamuel Hoahania, a chief among the Hau
Hui of Malaita and a teacher/evangelist with the South Seas Evangelical Mission,
was contemplating a return to custom religion when he encountered Alvin and
Gertrude Blum in Honiara: his conversion precipitated the first Îmass entryâ
of Pacific Islanders into the Faith after the events in the Gilbert & Ellis
Islands Colony. These incidents illustrate the way in which Pacific Bahá'í
Communities emerged through the courageous acts of both pioneers and believers.
The Bahá'í Teachings then spread through family and tribal groups or
clan-structures, eventually reaching the major communities in most of the island
The exact size of Pacific Island Bahá'í populations is hard to establish. In Kiribati, for instance, the Bahá'í community was reported in 1979 as being 8.8% of the population. However, the 1985 national census indicated that 1503 Gilbertese, 2.38% of the total population of 63,045 were Bahá'ís, while The Bahá'í World, vol XVIII, suggests a figure of 7%. In 1986 there were 90 LSAs and a total of 140 localities, and in July 1987 Bahá'í News reported a per capita Bahá'í population of 17.9%. In Tonga the proportion of the national population that are Bahá'í rose from 3.9% in 1983 to 6.3% in 1987. In Tuvalu the Bahá'í population rose in this period from 3% to 5.8%, and in the Marshall Islands, from 2% to 11.5%. Similar growth rates are reported in other Pacific nations, although poor progress in the French Overseas Territories (New Caledonia, Loyalty Islands, French Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands) and the Cook Islands (a Polynesian nation in free association with New Zealand), is so far without easy explanation.
In absolute terms, the Papua New Guinea Bahá'í Community has the
largest membership in the Pacific, approximately 30,000. In addition to being a
rapidly growing community, it is geographically dispersed: by 1991 there were Bahá'í Communities in 87 of the
countryâs 88 districts, at least 3 LSAs in each of its 19 provinces, and a
total of 259 LSAs nation-wide: in that year 61 of 76 delegates attended National
Convention, and an additional 12 forwarded postal votes. In addition to this
numeric expansion the Papua New Guinea Bahá'í enjoys considerable exposure in
the national press, and is well known to the countryâs political leaders. In
recent years the press has covered such activities as National Convention,
participation of Papua New Guinean Bahá'ís in the Centenary of the passing of
Bahá'u'lláh in Haifa and Akka,
and a seminar on "work ethics and productivity" sponsored by the Port
Moresby LSA. 
Positive reception of the Bahá'í Message by Pacific Island leaders has
been an enduring feature of the progress of the Bahá'í Message in the region. Head of State of Western Samoa Malieatoa Tanumafili II,
having received a formal presentation of the Teachings in 1967, quietly became a
believer, and made his profession
public in 1973. The dedication of
a Mashriqu'l-Adhkár in Apia in September
1984 symbolises the response of the Malietoa to the Faith of Baháâuâlláh.
Close relations between the royal families of Western Samoa and Tonga,
and the high chiefs of Fiji, have resulted in members of these families either
becoming Bahá'ís, or having intimate knowledge of the Bahá'í
Teachings. Of particular significance have been the visits to other Polynesian
royal and chiefly families by Princess Tosi Malietoa, daughter of the Western Samoan monarch. In 1995 Adi Samanunu, the highest Chief of Fiji, entered the
Fijian Bahá'í Community. In the Cook Islands, too, the highest chief of the land,
Pa Terito Ariki (d.1995) had been a Bahá'í
since the 1950s. Her husband, Sir Tom Davis, when Prime Minister of the Cook Islands,
became the first head of government to formally consult with the Universal House
of Justice, and he himself later joined the Community. In 1993 Sir Julius Chan
(then deputy Prime Minister and now Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea),
reported to Parliament on his visit to the Bahá'í World Centre while in Israel
on state business.
Amata Kabua, President of the Marshall Islands, is another government leader who
has a close relationship with Bahá'í
institutions nationally and internationally. In his address at the opening of
the UN General Assembly in October 1991 President Kabua called for "a new
and comprehensive vision of a global society, supported by a new system of
values. This recognition does not imply the abandonment of legitimate loyalties,
the suppression of cultural diversity, nor the abolition of national autonomy.
It calls for a wider loyalty, for a far higher aspiration than has thus far
animated human affairs."
In the 1980s the Bahá'í Faith received increasing official recognition
by governments and agencies in the Pacific. In May 1981 the Pacific Conference
of Churches sent a letter to the UN Secretary General expressing its concern at
the treatment of Bahá'ís in Iran. Since 1978 the Bahá'í International
Community has participated in conferences of the South Pacific Commission, an
inter-governmental body that promotes the economic and social well-being and
advancement of the peoples of the Pacific islands. In 1985 The Promise of World Peace was presented directly or indirectly to
the leaders of most Pacific territories, and in 1986 Pacific Bahá'í
communities were active participants in the International Year of Peace. The
18th Guam Legislature passed resolution 214 "Relative to recognising the
International Year of Peace as designated for 1986 by the United Nations, the
promise of world peace as exemplified by the Bahá'í Faith, and acknowledging
the importance of world peace to everyone.
The receptivity of elite Pacific Islanders to the Bahá'í Teachings does not mean, however, that these Communities have
adequately attracted all sectors of society. The 1996 Ridvan Message calls on
the Pacific Bahá'í Communities to reach Îall strata of societyâ - possibly
a reference to the fact that in some Pacific nations the Bahá'ís have more
contact at village (grass-roots) level than with those in positions of most
influence, and particularly those in public life rather than in business.
Reaching Îthe massesâ is in some ways easier than sustaining dialogue with
public-policy decision-makers and with elected representatives, but contact with
such strata is vital if the emerging Bahá'í Communities are to make their
fullest contribution to the rejuvenation of
Adherence to Bahá'í laws of personal status is another area that
challenges Pacific Island Bahá'í Communities.
In Bahá'í communities in Western societies, the application of Bahá'í
laws concerning alcohol, drugs, marriage, and political involvement are well
established: in the Pacific, the situation is more fluid.
In some parts of the Pacific the Bahá'ís are surrounded by significant
levels of alcohol dependency and Assemblies at local and regional level must
determine when counselling ceases and administrative sanctions are applied.
Similarly, whereas Bahá'í law only permits marriages between one man and one
woman, with parental consent, relationships in Pacific cultures vary widely and
can involve "companionate marriage" prior to formalities to establish
the fertility of the couple; in some cultures concubinage and polygamy continue
to be practiced, and the application of Bahá'í marriage rules is thus an area
in which education is required.
Another area in which Bahá'ís will become increasingly involved is
governance. Bahá'ís do not become involved in partisan politics, believing
that such systems are premised on conflict and cannot ultimately achieve social
unity. The Pacific Island polities, however, hold the potential to be among the
first in the world to be receptive to Bahá'ís principles of governance. While
they have adopted western concepts based on Îpoliticsâ they are not
necessarily tied to the introduced system, and may be prepared to explore
alternatives in order to meet their societiesâ needs.
The question as to what constitutes "partisan politics" in the
Pacific has not always been clear. Islanders who become Bahá'ís continue their
chiefly roles, and participation in customary offices is practised freely.
Across the Pacific, a number Bahá'ís have withdrawn from the community to
contest political elections, although in some cases have subsequently withdrawn
from politics to re-enter the Community. More significantly, there are many Bahá'ís
holding positions of responsibility in non-political offices in the region,
including heads of government agencies and departments and other senior
positions in the public service.
Changing Role of the Pioneer
A major challenge facing the Pacific
Bahá'í Communities concerns the changing role of pioneers. In their initial
stages these communities relied on pioneers for knowledge of the Bahá'í
Teachings and administration, as well as for material resources. The principle
of Îspiritual equalityâ was acknowledged, but disparate access to education
and employment opportunities implied an ongoing gap between pioneers and local
Bahá'ís which tended to result in pioneers taking disproportionate
responsibility for the progress and welfare of the community. With educational
levels rising, however, Islander Bahá'ís are emerging as community leaders,
possessing modern education, material resources, and the intimate knowledge of
tradition and culture, to equip them for service. Given this development of
indigenous human resources, the role of the pioneer is being re-defined, and in
a number of Pacific Communities the role of the pioneer is becoming one of
support and partnership, rather than that of more direct leadership, as may have
prevailed in the past.
A major initiative in recent years, conceived by the
Continental Board of Counsellors, has been the ÎOcean of Lightâ, a series of
events based on presentation of the Bahá'í Message by traditional leaders who
are Bahá'ís to other traditional leaders, often through the
application of customary communication practices. Respect for custom has always
been a source of attraction to the Bahá'í Teachings. Early response in the
Nalik area of New Ireland in
Papua New Guinea, for instance, came from the traditional malanggan carvers who appreciated the Bahá'í approach to culture,
while on Tanna, an island in southern Vanuatu which produced the custom religion
Jon Frum, a number of custom chiefs
have been attracted to the Bahá'í
Community on the basis of its respect for and compatibility with kastom.
The 1996 Ridvan message makes the link between Bahá'ís
Communities of Asia and the Pacific more specific, through its reference to
Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Korea in a message to the Bahá'ís of the
Pacific, rather than in its message to the Bahá'ís of Asia. The Bahá'í Communities of Australia and Japan have long
contemplated the significance of Shoghi Effendiâs reference to a Îspiritual
axisâ linking North Asia with the South Pacific. Since that description was
penned in the 1950s Asian capital and cultural influence has penetrated Pacific
societies and economies more deeply and swiftly than many would have thought
possible. By emphasising the linkage between Pacific and Asian Bahá'í
Communities the Universal House of Justice may be suggesting that the Bahá'ís
give more serious attention to these developments.
In summary, the Pacific Bahá'í Communities have emerged rapidly since
the years of the World Crusade and have indigenised their institutions rapidly.
They have expanded numerically despite early persecution at the hands of
missionaries and inconvenience in the context of petty colonial officialdom.
Following the consolidation of Local, Regional and National Assemblies, however,
they are now the largest of the newer religious communities in a number of
Pacific Island countries. Most importantly, they constitute throughout the
Pacific a strong moral force, capable of forming partnerships with other
progressive communities that aspire to the preparation of these island nations
for the challenges of the coming ÎPacific centuryâ.
To the Followers of Bahá'u'lláh in Australia, the Cook Islands, the Eastern
Caroline Islands, the Fiji Islands, French Polynesia, the Hawaiian Islands,
Indonesia, Japan, Kiribati, Korea, the Mariana Islands, the Marshall
Islands, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands, New Zealand, Papua New
Guinea, the Philippines, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu,
and the Western Caroline Islands.
Bahá'ís use the termÎPioneerâ rather than Îmissionaryâ to refer to
those who move from their home to promote the interests of their Faith.
Although such members have an element of Îmissionâ in their
motivation, their Îmissionary styleâ is in some ways fundamentally
distinct from that of other religious traditions. The title ÎKnight of
Baháâuâllahâ was given to those Bahá'ís who moved to territories
designated as unopen to the Bahá'í message as at April 1953; after April
1954 the title was conferred only on the first to arrive at such
destinations, the last in 1990.
Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Bahá'í World,
 By 1992 the number of Local Assemblies had risen to
876, and the total number of localities in which Bahá'ís resided in
Australasia stood at 4,094: Universal House of Justice, The
Six Year Plan 1986-1992: Summary of Achievements, Israel: Bahá'í World
Centre, 1993, p.114.
 The South-West Pacific Assembly devolved into the
National Spiritual Assemblies of the Solomon Islands (1971), New Caledonia
and Loyalty Islands (1977), and New Hebrides (1977); and the South Pacific
Assembly devolved into the National Spiritual Assemblies of the Gilbert and
Ellice Islands (1967), Fiji (1970), Samoa (1970), Tonga and Cook Islands
(1970), and finally, the Cook Islands (1985). The National Spiritual
Assembly of Papua New Guinea was established in 1969. In the North Pacific,
National Spiritual Assemblies were established in the Marshall Islands
(1977), Mariana Islands (1978), Western Caroline Islands (Yap & Belau -
1985) and Eastern Caroline Islands (Truk, Pohnpei, Kosrae - 1985).
 See, eg, Leslie Newbigin, "The Great
Encounter", Missionary Review
August 1960, 11; Matthew Cooper, "Langalanga Religion", Oceania,
xlii:2, December 1972, 113; F.W. Coaldrake,
Floodtide in the Pacific; William L. Cook Pacific
People Sing Out Strong. N.Y.: Friendship Press, 1982; Cliff D. Wright, Christ and Kiribati Cultures, Report of Workshop on Traditional Kiribati
Culture and Christian Faith, Tarawa, July 1981; Laumua Kofe, "Palagi
and Pastors", in Tuvalu: A
History, Suva: IPS, 1983, p.120; Asasela Ravuvu, Vaka i Taukei: The Fijian Way of Life, Suva: University of the South
Pacific, 1983, 94; Baranite Kirata, "Spiritual Beliefs", in Kiribati:
A Changing Atoll Culture, Suva: IPS, 1985, p.83-84; Darrell Whiteman, Melanesians
and Missionaries, 1983; Charles Forman, Island
Churches of the South Pacific, Orbis, USA, 1984.; Kunei Etekiera, "Te Aro, The New Religion", in Talu Alaima
et al, Kiribati: Aspects of History, 43. In 1975 Crocombe mentioned Bahá'í
missionaries in his list of "foreigners" whose activities in the
Pacific Islands required considerable analysis: Ron Crocombe, Missionaries:
sacred and secular, Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania,
Symposium on mission activities in Oceania, March 1975.(tss, USP Library);
Harold M. Ross, "Competition for Baegu Souls: Mission Rivalry on
Malaita, Solomon Islands", in James Boutilier (et al, eds), Mission, Church, and Sect in Oceania, ASAO Monograph No. 6,
University of Michigan Press, 1978, p.165; and Howard van Trease (ed), Atoll
Politics: The Republic of Kiribati (Suva, 1993). More detailed accounts
appear in Irene Williams, "The Bahá'í Faith", in E. Afeaki (et
al), Religious Co-operation in the
Pacific Islands, (Suva, 1983); and Teeruro Ieuti, The
Kiribati Protestant Church and the New Religious Movements 1860-1985,
(Suva, 1992). The most recent survey of Pacific Bahá'í Communities is
included in Manfred Ernst, Winds of Change: Rapidly Growing Religious Groups in the Pacific Islands,
Suva: Pacific Conference of Churches, 1994.
 Charles Forman, Island
Churches of the South Pacific, p.200.
 14 December 1954,
 Teeruro Ieuti, The
Kiribati Protestant Church and the New Religious Movements 1860-1985,
(Suva, 1992), p101. For detail see chap. 3: "The Bahá'í World
 Gordon W. Groves, Biography of Peter Kanere Koru,
mss, June 1983.
 Tippett has suggested that the theme of "unity of
the human race" was crucial to Hoahania's conversion: Alan Tippett, Solomon
Islands Christianity, p.98.
 Kiribati, Statistics Office, Ministry of Finance,
Bulletin No. 3/85, 1985 Population Census, 25 September 1985.
News, July 1987, p4.
of Papua New Guinea 7 May,
of Papua New Guinea 28 May,
1992, p 19; 18 June 1992, p22.
Courier, 11 July 1995; 19 July, 1995.
August 1993. Sir Julius said ÎI feel that, as a Christian nation, we need
to have closer ties with the roots of our religion. My delegation also
visited the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, Israelâs third largest city,
where I also held talks with members of the Universal House of Justice, the
supreme decision making body of the world Bahá'í community.â Following
this visit the Universal House of Justice cabled: ÎDelighted inform
friends visit Bahá'í World Centre 12 June 1993 Sir Julius Chan Deputy
Prime Minister Papua New Guinea accompanied by Lady Chan during course
official visit Israel highly significant that Universal House of Justice met
with Sir Julius Chan in response to his request for consultation on future
role Papua New Guinea as emerging nation and on destiny Pacific nations set
example unity mutual cooperation Sir Julius expressed appreciation
achievements Bahá'í community and admiration
Bahá'í approach personal social transformation meeting with Sir
Julius Chan following earlier meetings Prime Minister Cook Islands and
President Marshall islands further evidence remarkable response Pacific
leaders principles Bahá'í Faith harbinger future application by world
statesmen prescription divine physician healing manifold ills humanity.
Islands Monthly November 1991,
Notably Michael Homerang, (Mohokala clan)
and Sinaila (Mohomaraba clan) - as a consequence of which large numbers of
their clans also became Bahá'ís.