“You belong to the family and the household of the Pacific more than you belong to Europe. We do not need to invite you in order to welcome you. You have been a Pacific people right from the beginning.”
Reverend Dr. Tevita Havea, the moderator of the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), made this comment while speaking before Kanak customary and political leaders at the opening ceremony of the 12th PCC General Assembly in Noumea, New Caledonia this week.
As regional church leaders presented a customary gift to their hosts, Reverend Havea stressed that the people of New Caledonia have always been part of the Pacific’s ecumenical family.
It’s been 57 years since the PCC last held a General Assembly in the French Pacific dependency. Indeed, the very first PCC Assembly was held between 25 May to 7 June 1966, at the tribe of Xépénéhé on Lifou, in New Caledonia’s outlying Loyalty Islands.
To commemorate this founding event, PCC church elders travelled again to the island of Lifou last week. They held a preliminary executive meeting at Xépénéhé, before returning to the capital Noumea for the official opening of the 12th General Assembly.
Asserting self-determination and sovereignty
As host of this week’s Assembly, Pastor Höcë Léonard Var Kaemo is beaming, as the churches of the Pacific gather again on Kanak land.
Pastor Kaemo is President of the Église Protestante de Kanaky Nouvelle-Calédonie (EPKNC), the main Protestant denomination in New Caledonia.
“Since 1966, it’s been more than 50 years since the PCC was here,” Kaemo told Islands Business. “It was we who created the PCC in the 1960s, and so it’s important that we come together again, to understand the path that we’ve travelled since then. Many countries across the Pacific have asserted their sovereignty, and many have succeeded in attaining it. For us, achieving sovereignty is still very difficult.”
“So this week is important not just for historic reasons,” he said. “The presence of so many Pacific leaders here is a way of showing ourselves and our government that we are a people of the Pacific. We are developing the Pacific way of living and understanding, creating our own way of thinking – and that’s supported by other Pacific peoples.”
A central theme of this week’s PCC General Assembly is ‘self-determination’, not just at political level but through attempts to decolonise faith, culture and belief. For Pastor Keamo, it’s a crucial issue for the Kanak people.
“To understand self-determination, firstly we have to understand our history,” he said. “Until recently, our history was written by the French. For us, it’s vital that we recount our own history, ourselves – the true history of this land.”
“Secondly, self-determination means we reaffirm our culture,” Kaemo added. “There are many cultures in New Caledonia, such as our Polynesian and Asian brothers, but it’s important that they acknowledge our indigenous Kanak culture.”
“Finally, self-determination means that we should finance ourselves economically – how can we develop a healthy economy on our pathway to sovereignty? For example, we have three [nickel] smelters in this country, but we need to manage them better, because our brothers across the Pacific see our nation as one of the greatest polluters in the region!”
Sharing theological education
Over many decades, church leaders from “Franconesia” – New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia – have studied alongside their anglophone counterparts at regional theological institutions such as the Pacific Theological College (PTC) and Pacific Regional Seminary (PRS), both located in Suva.
In 2016, New Caledonia and French Polynesia gained full membership of the Pacific Islands Forum. Since then, as the Government and Congress of New Caledonia expand their ties with regional neighbours, the churches have also reached out to strengthen longstanding partnerships in Melanesian nations.
Last year, the EPKNC and PTC signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore partnerships, including the possibility of a PTC campus in New Caledonia. Pastor Kaemo endorsed the MOU along with PTC Principal Reverend Professor Upolu Luma Vaai; the President of New Caledonia’s Congress Roch Wamytan; and a representative of the independence movement Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS).
Explaining the ceremony in July 2022, Reverend Vaai said: “Both the PTC and PCC have been assisting regional self-determination movements since the 1960s and 1970s. We still honour that vision from our forebears – it’s grounded on the work of our Lord and the Gospel of justice. We are moving forward not just to assist the churches, but also governments and communities in the Pacific to build confidence in their own cultural resilience.”
“Our brothers and sisters in Kanaky are part of the Pacific family,” he said. “That’s why we are doing our very best to support them in whatever way we can – cultural resilience or development, youth empowerment, education transformation. It’s very important for us to support whoever is struggling under colonial or neo-colonial systems.”
Throughout this week’s Assembly at the University of New Caledonia (UNC), there has been extensive discussion of regional collaboration on theological education. The PTC Council sat for the first time outside of its home of Suva, to discuss the college’s metamorphosis into a Pasifika Communities University.
Self-determination in New Caledonia
One of the central themes of the 12th General Assembly is “Transformation as Self Determination.”
On Tuesday, President of New Caledonia Louis Mapou gave the keynote speech to the plenary session on self-determination, followed by reflections from the Etaretia Porotetani Mā’ohi (EPM) of Mā’ohi Nui; the Churches of Tanah Papua (West Papua); and the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) from Australia.
Mapou is the first Kanak independence leader to hold the Presidency of New Caledonia in more than 40 years. In his address, he said that “the situation of our brothers in West Papua and the result of the recent referendum in Australia show – oh, how much – that history weighs on the destiny of each people.”
For President Mapou, self-determination refers to “the ability to determine – for oneself and one’s loved ones – life choices, actions and initiatives that contribute to the well-being and future of any individual or group. To achieve it, everyone calls on three prerequisites which form a holy trinity of conviction and commitment: freedom to exercise the right to self-determination, freedom of conscience, and freedom of choice.”
“When we extrapolate this act into the construction of a human community like that of New Caledonia,” he said, “freedom of choice, freedom of conscience and the freedom to self-determine refer inexorably to the history of colonisation and colonialism in New Caledonia.”
“With the great risks faced by our small peoples and islands – such as global warming – we are questioned about the meaning and our exercise of our freedom of conscience as well as the conditions of our self-determination in the face of the growing threats weighing on our lives or even our very survival.”
Throughout the Pacific, the flags of colonial states followed the missionaries into Oceanic societies. Churches played a vital – although contradictory – role in the colonisation of indigenous peoples, bolstering state power but also providing a refuge for affected communities, such as valorising local languages.
In a call for solidarity, Mapou threw out a challenge to the assembled church leaders, arguing that “churches contributed to the deconstruction of indigenous societies during the first contact of colonisation. Can they participate in colonial deconstruction to help build Kanaky New Caledonia? That’s the challenge.”
As the Assembly completes it work this week, two French government ministers will arrive in Noumea for negotiations on New Caledonia’s future political status.
Mapou stressed that any new political statute for his nation “requires an act of self-determination in accordance with international law and the French Constitution. Such an act would represent the culmination of a long trajectory of emancipation, which will ultimately succeed by creating the conditions for a free and conscious choice for the citizens of New Caledonia. This is our trajectory.”
Decolonisation on the agenda
For President Mapou, discussion of self-determination in Kanaky New Caledonia must remain on the agenda of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as well as regional ecumenical movements like PCC and PTC.
Speaking last month at the Pacific Island Forum in Rarotonga, President Mapou told Islands Business: “As it attempts to maintain stability in the region, the Forum is concerned with the issue of self-determination – that’s quite normal, as part of its mission.”
“The Forum has engaged with New Caledonia for many years, especially since 1986, when Pacific countries worked to re-inscribe New Caledonia on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories,” he noted. “The message was repeated last year in Suva, when the Forum welcomed a report on New Caledonia [from a 2021 ministerial mission], which stated that the Forum would continue to monitor the process of self-determination.”
President Mapou noted: “The issue of West Papua was on the formal agenda of the Rarotonga Forum this year, but New Caledonia wasn’t, so we are pleased that it’s back in the communique. The MSG raised this issue and I spoke about it myself to leaders. So this issue of decolonisation is important and alive at regional level.”