COMMENTS by the Catholic Archbishop of Suva that the 2013 Constitution deprived Fijians of the right to practice religious beliefs in the public sphere are incorrect, says Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama.
This after Archbishop Peter Chong expressed his concern about the provision for a Secular State in the Constitution that states "religious belief is personal" saying the government had somehow silenced the church and deprived the people of the right to pursue religious truth in public.
Through a Ministry of Information statement released yesterday Commodore Bainimarama said the 2013 Constitution had no limitation on expressing religious belief publicly, individually or in a group.
He said it was disappointing that someone of the Archbishop's stature did not appear to have read those provisions of the Constitution in their totality.
"We fear he is relying on the advise of some who may be deliberately misleading him. Such comments clearly have the potential to inflame public opinion," he said.
The Archbishop and other religious leaders have a special responsibility not to spread misinformation, and they must uphold that responsibility."
Commodore Bainimarama said the Bill of Rights expressly guarantees a Fijian's right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief and right to freedom of expression.
"Section 22(2) clearly states "Every person has the right, either individually or in community with others, in private or in public, to manifest and practice their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching.
"This section could not be any clearer in its protection of the right to practice religion and to talk about and discuss religion in the public sphere," Commodore Bainimarama said.
"The Constitution also protects the right of all Fijians to freedom of expression in all aspects of community life, including in the practice of religion. This right is only limited to prevent the spread of hate speech or incitement to violence."
Commodore Bainimarama said the fact that the Archbishop was able to freely discuss the role of religion in public life, as he did in the media yesterday, contradicted the very premise of his argument.
"It is also deeply troubling that the Archbishop has demonstrated such a fundamental lack of understanding of the Constitution's provision for a Secular State.
"The Archbishop ought to be aware that the principle that underlines any Secular State is that the state cannot favour any specific denomination, belief or religion.
"A Secular State means that religion is a matter for people to decide for themselves, not for the state to decide for them. Section four of the Constitution establishes the Secular State. It protects the religious liberty of all Fijians in the state, and provides that religion and the state are separate."
"In this context, the statement that religious beliefs are personal means that they are not for the state to dictate.
"It means that the state cannot subscribe to a religious belief, force a religious belief on others, or regard a particular religion as the official religion of the state."