Commentary: Prime Minister should leave it to people to decide whether they want to fast or pray

    Kaniva Commentary:

    Every year in Tonga the first week of January is devoted to a prayer service conducted by the Free Wesleyan Church call Uike Ha’amo ‘o Tonga or, in English, the churches ask God to carry Tonga over His shoulder.

    PM Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa. Photo/Kalino Lātū (Kaniva News)

    It ran for the whole week and people have to prepare polas every day from Monday to Sunday to welcome people who attended the churches. The Free Wesleyan Church prayer service was later joined by other Tongan protestant churches like the Free Church of Tonga. It was a big week for Tonga and it has been running for many years now.

    The pastors and whoever is attending have the chance to speak in the church and during the feast they asked God to protect Tonga from any natural disasters or any types of crisis. This was the gist of the prayer service.

    But as we can see, Tonga continues to face tropical cyclones and the government’s annual budget continues to rely heavily on foreign countries’ donations. More than 50% of the budget has to come from its overseas counterparts.

    Tonga continues to suffer from one of the highest levels of non-communicable diseases and obesity.

    Statistics from the Asian Development Bank show about 22 percent of the Tonga population lives below the poverty line. The high cost of living means many people struggle to meet basic needs.

    Last year Tongan police said that drug use, especially that of methamphetamine, is spreading in the kingdom and increasingly affecting young people. According to police statistics, among those arrested recently for drug use, the youngest is a 13-year-old, while the oldest is aged 67.

    The pattern is the same with the Prime Minister’s National Fasting and Prayer services programme, which he said was to combat Covid-19. It is flawed and detracts from the Christian religion. He told the media Tonga was still safe because of the prayer programme. Is he trying to let us ask questions like, who was responsible for the tropical cyclones which have caused severe damage throughout Tonga almost every year, the drug epidemic, the level of poverty and Tonga’s struggle to fund its annual budget?

    Hon Tu’i’onetoa, according to his Covid-19 prayer campaign, believes that God has been showing favouritism towards Tonga in particular and did not treat the other countries who have more Christian followers  the same way. Italy, where Catholicism originated, suffered hugely and many of its people have died from Covid-19. Are we going to say that God hated Italy and only protected Tonga?

    The Prime Minister needs help with his logic and reasoning.

    Sensible

    Logic would suggest that Tonga has kept Covid-19 at  bay because of the Prime Minister’s very sensible decision to follow scientific advice and close the borders to aircraft, as well as having the navy keep watch for ships entering the kingdom’s territorial waters. These were good policies and they have worked. There was no  need for the Prime Minister to claim the country was free of the virus because of his campaign.

    Italy was overwhelmed with Covid infections because it did not close its  borders in time and doctors and nurses have worked heroically since then to stem the tide within the country’s borders. From the Vatican, in the heart of Italy’s capital Rome, Pope Francis has prayed for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, but also praised the work of scientists for working together  to find a cure.

    The Prime Minister’s fasting has been a bizarre twist in the Covid-19 pandemic given the level of expenditure taken from taxpayers’ money to fund it while at the same time Tongans who are stuck overseas have not received any help, unlike citizens from some other countries.

    The melon growers and civil servants have complained about their plight, but the Prime Minister and his entourage have busied themselve in travelling to collect food, Tongan handicrafts, fish and travelling allowances, all paid for by taxpayers’ money.

    Why didn’t Hon Tu’i’onetoa asked the churches in the outer islands to do the fasting and prayers on their own? That would save government money. In Vava’u last week, the Free Wesleyan Church Superintendent told the government’s tour in a welcoming programme that when he saw the number of government staff who had joined the tour he asked himself what would happen if the government stopped the tour and used that money to create a budget to pay the pastors. He said he was just making a joke, but Facebook users quickly took to Facebook and shared their views. They said the pastor was joking in the Tongan way of trying to make a joke but at the same time speaking seriously about the issue in a way the government would understand.

    We saw during the Prime Minister’s visit to Vava’u last week that the level of cultural and social welcoming ceremonies expected was too much. Obliging people to donate polas caused some to complain because they could not afford it. That’s not how Christianity is supposed to work and there seems to be no logical link between fasting and enjoying huge feasts.

    Religion should be respected, so it would have been better to leave the churches to provide such services for the people. Tonga’s coat of arms includes two olive branches tied around a crown, symbolising church and state. They are inseparable and at the same time they have to watch over each other. Some church ministers have expressed their concerns over Hon Tu’i’onetoa’s expensive fasting campaign and Kaniva News has reported this previously. The Prime Minister should respect people’s religious beliefs and leave it to them to decide whether they want to fast or pray.

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