by AT News Team

A constitutional crisis in the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) erupted in December and continues today. The country has an exceptionally high proportion of Seventh-day Adventists and they are involved in key roles on both sides of the government impasse. Adventists may play a key role in its resolution.

Before dawn last Wednesday (Jan. 26) a retired military officer, Col. Yaura Sasa, led a team of two dozen soldiers into the headquarters of the PNG Defense Force and placed the top commander, General Francis Agwi, under house arrest. He told journalists that he was acting on behalf of Sir Michael Somare, the man that the nation’s parliament has repeatedly voted out of the prime minister position. He gave the politicians until February 1 to resolve the crisis.

Peter O’Neill, the man that parliament named prime minister in August and has the support of a solid majority of lawmakers, held a news conference later in the day and announced that Sasa and 15 others had been arrested. He said he was prepared to step aside if there was a vote of no confidence in parliament.

Radio New Zealand and the Australian Associated Press quoted Captain Tom Ur, chief of staff at the military headquarters, as saying that Sasa was never in charge. “We have only one commander. If we don’t see any legal instruments … we are not taking orders from renegade soldiers.”

Since December both Somare and O’Neill have claimed the office of Prime Minister, there have been two cabinets and two national police chiefs. The majority in parliament was in conflict with the supreme court and the Governor General, who acts on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, the official head of state for this Commonwealth nation.

The roots of the crisis go back to the spring when Somare was serving as prime minister and traveled to Singapore for heart surgery. The 76-year-old was hospitalized for what became three heart surgeries and out of the country until September. In August the parliament appointed O’Neill as prime minister. He is in his 40s, part of a new generation of young professionals that is emerging in PNG. Somare was the first prime minister after the country became independent in 1975 and has served in that role off and on for nearly half of the nation’s history.

On December 12 the PNG supreme court ruled that parliament’s appointment of a new prime minister was unconstitutional. The following day parliament again voted to recognize O’Neill as prime minister. A day later Governor General Michael Ogio announced that Somare was the legitimate leader and swore in Somare’s cabinet.

Ogio’s announcement was punctuated by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake which struck the second largest city in PNG, casting a decidedly apocalyptic tone to the crisis. Both the BBC and the Associated Press have since reported that damage from the earthquake was moderate with no loss of life.

At least 60 of the 109 members of parliament met with Ogio a few days later, affirming their intention for O’Neill to be prime minister. Then parliament dismissed him from the office of Governor General as provided in the PNG constitution and again voted for O’Neill to be prime minister.

The citizens of PNG, a country with a population of seven million, are understandably upset with the situation. The Washington Post quoted Michael Malabang, president of the nation’s Trade Union Congress. “We are sick and tired of the selfish behavior by our politicians. We don’t want a total public service breakdown and it is coming to that stage.”

PNG has been troubled by repeated changes in parliamentary majorities over the years as lawmakers often switched parties. In recent years the law was changed so that a no-confidence vote ending a government could not be taken any sooner than 18 months after an election. The next elections are scheduled for June.

The deputy prime minister in O’Neill’s government, Belden Namah, is a member of the Adventist Church. So is O’Neill’s chief of staff, Ben Micah. On the other side, eight of Somare’s cabinet ministers are Adventists. A total of 15 members of parliament are baptized Adventist Church members.

In 2010 when General Conference President Ted N. C. Wilson visited PNG thousands of people met him at the airport and the Speaker of parliament hosted a state dinner, inviting the Adventist lawmakers, heads of other denominations, and leaders from business and the professions. A number of Adventist young professionals were at this event.

Wilson also met with Somare during that trip. Wilson affirmed the country’s commitment to religious liberty. Somare commented that PNG is a Christian nation and asked Wilson to read a Bible text. Wilson selected and read Mich 6:8, “He has showed you what is good and what the Lord requires of you: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Wilson presented Somare with a gift, a copy of The Desire of Ages by Ellen G. White. He mentioned to the prime minister that she wrote this book while living in the South Pacific.

During the current crisis O’Neill visited the Korobosea Adventist Church in Port Moresby, the PNG capital. According to a report dated December 13 by Andrew Opis on the web site of the South Pacific Division Record, a group of Adventist pastors surrounded O’Neill and prayed for his leadership, describing it as a “dedication” for his government. O’Neill acknowledged the contribution of the Adventist Church “not only in spiritual development but in provision of health and education services as well.”

O’Neill presented a donation of $700,000 toward the renovation of church facilities from the PNG “church-state partnership program” and the Prime Minister’s discretionary fund. Pastor Leigh Rice, president of the Adventist Church in PNG, was present at the event and said to O’Neill, “your presence testifies to the close relationship that exists between church and the national government in providing services to the people of this country.” Rice is an Australian who has served as a missionary in Albania and a pastor in New Zealand.

A letter published in the Solomon Star, the leading newspaper in the Solomon Islands, describes an early December visit by Namah on the campus of Pacific Adventist University near Port Moresby. He met with students from outside the country and delivered a donation of nearly $300,000 to help pay for their education. The letter from the president of the foreign students group at the university thanked Namah for the gift and noted that it came “from his family business” not government sources.

In 1999 an Adventist was in line to become prime minister. John Pondari, a member of parliament, was serving as deputy prime minister and widely expected to become the nation’s youngest leader at 32. At the last minute Pondari decided to join the opposition party “saying that he had a moral duty to fight economic mismanagement and the corruption which is endemic in most walks of PNG life,” according to Adventist Press Service (APD) published in Switzerland. Pondari had earlier served as Speaker of parliament.

The membership of the Adventist Church in PNG was 253,466 on January 1, according to the most recent report from the GC Office of Archives, Statistics and Research. There are more than 3,500 local congregations in the country. The denomination grew at rapid rates (six to twelve percent per year) in the 1980s and then slowed to an average annual growth rate of five percent in the 1990s. Over the last decade the growth rate in PNG has been about the same as it was North America, around two percent per year.

The official census reports nearly three times as many people who identified themselves as Adventists. In fact 10 percent of the population says they are Adventists. That is 25 times the percentage of Americans who identify themselves in national surveys as Adventists. This makes the Adventist faith the fourth largest religion in PNG, very close in size to the United Church (a mainline Protestant merger), about half the size of the Lutheran Church and a third the number of Catholics.

Pacific Adventist University began as a college in 1983 and was given a university charter by the government in 1997. It has 1,100 students on four campuses with a faculty of about 100. Two years ago it launched an FM radio station that can be heard throughout the national capital region.
The denomination also operates three secondary schools and six medical clinics in the country. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in PNG has a staff of 56 and an annual budget of a little over $1 million, according to its most recent annual report. It is involved with HIV-AIDS prevention, construction of village water systems, adult literacy education and other projects. The Adventist Church also sponsors the Flying Doctor Service that brings mobile clinics to isolated rural areas of PNG.

PNG is among the poorest nations on the globe with a third of its population living on a dollar a day or less. The Adventist Church’s investment in education and health care over the years has been significant to the progress this country is making, and ADRA is in the forefront of community development. The result is that a significant portion of the emerging middle class in PNG has an Adventist family connection even if they are not active members.

Evan J. Paki is an example of this type of Adventist young adult. He won a Fulbright Scholarship and studied at Harvard Law School following graduation from the University of PNG with a law degree. He worked in banking and finance in Sydney, Australia, and at the World Bank in Washington DC. In 2003 he was appointed the PNG ambassador to the United States. He was the youngest diplomat in the history of his country to serve as the chief of an embassy.

“There are important needs in the world,” Paki is quoted in an interview published in Dialogue, the journal for college and university students published by the GC education department. “As Adventists we are looking for a better world to come, but we are still in this world with all of its needs that we can alleviate.”

The current political conflict in PNG is seen by many observers as a conflict between generations. As young, well-educated professionals emerge the founding generation of post-colonial leadership sees their control coming to an end. This is typical of a number of developing nations around the world.

In many countries a significant number of the new generation of leaders have an Adventist faith or connection. They often have decidedly different views of social justice than may be common among many middle-aged white Adventists in North America. They may also have different views of theology than the official conservative consensus among the denomination’s clergy.

As these emerging leaders find their voice within Adventist circles, Adventist Today will seek to report their ideas and views. A graduate student from PNG at Andrews University writes, “please pray for my family, friends and fellow church members back home.” Violence has often been associated with political crises in PNG.

It is possible that the Adventists in key political positions on both sides of this conflict may be able to open channels for dialog where others cannot. Adventist leaders from outside the country were able to negotiate an end some time ago to a decade-long civil war on the PNG island of Bougainville. When the Adventist Church becomes as large a part of the national political picture as it is in PNG, its tradition of eschewing political involvement is no longer possible. In fact, some would argue that it has a moral duty to prevent loss of life and help bring a peaceful outcome.