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Fiji Military Confronts Powerful Religious Community

Fiji's military government is warning the country's powerful Methodist Church to stop its criticism of the erosion of democracy in the South Pacific nation. Army commanders threaten to ban a centerpiece of the church's calendar, its annual conference, and accuse religious leaders of causing instability.

Sermon calls for protests

A senior Methodist minister, Reverend Manasa Lasaro, angered Fiji's military government when he used a sermon to call for peaceful protests to restore democracy.

His comments landed Lasaro in custody. He was held for two days before being released. Army officers say his conduct is still under investigation.

The Methodists are Fiji's biggest and most influential religious group. About a quarter of the country's population of just under a million people are Methodists. The military, stung by the church's opposition, appears willing to confront a challenge from such a popular institution.

Senior army officers urge churchgoers not to be "misled by the antics of a few people who are trying to cause instability." They threatened to ban the church's annual conference later this year if the criticism continues.

No intention of going quietly

Lasaro says he has no intention of going away quietly.

"We were asking the military regime to consider the stand of the church in relation to bringing democracy back into the country through general elections," he explained. "We are not going to back away. We stand by those very high principles, those moral and spiritual and ethical principles."

Fiji's military seized power in a bloodless coup in December 2006. Its grip on the country was strengthened last month when President Josefa Iloilo abolished the constitution after a panel of senior judges ruled that the army government is illegal.

No elections for at least 5 years

Commodore Frank Bainimarama heads an interim administration that, despite strong international objections, says no elections will be held for at least five years.

Commodore Bainimarama says he plans to stamp out official corruption and enhance the rights of Fiji's ethnic Indian minority before elections can be held.

An intolerance of dissent and widespread censorship of the media have led critics to describe Fiji's military strongman as a dictator.