U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Vanuatu

Section I. Freedom of Religion

The preamble of the Constitution refers to a commitment to traditional values and Christian principles; however, the Constitution also provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

In 1995 in response to concerns expressed by some established churches about the activities of new missionary groups, such as the Holiness Fellowship, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Government passed a Religious Registration Act, which was repealed in December 1997. Although the law was never enforced actively and the missionary groups continued to operate, church representatives believe that it had a chilling effect on new missionary activity.

The great majority of the population belongs to Christian churches, although many combine their Christian faith with some pre-Christian cultural practices. Church membership is primarily Presbyterian (approximately 48 percent), Roman Catholic (15 percent), and Anglican (12 percent). Another 30 percent are shared by the Church of Christ, the Apostolic Church, the Assemblies of God, and the Seventh-Day Adventists. The John Frum Movement is centered on the island of Tanna and includes less than 5 percent of the population. Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Latter-Day Saints reportedly also are active. There are believed to be members of other world religions within the foreign community who are free to practice their religions, but they are not known to proselytize or hold public religious ceremonies.

The Government interacts with churches through the Department of Internal Affairs and the Vanuatu Christian Council. Customarily, government oaths of office are taken on the Bible. The Government provides some financial help for the construction of churches for council members, provides grants to church-operated schools, and pays the national teaching staffs. These benefits are not available to non-Christian religious organizations. Government schools also schedule time each week for religious education conducted by representatives of council churches, using materials designed by those churches. Students whose parents do not wish them to attend the class are excused. Non-Christian religions are not permitted to teach their religions in the public schools.

Aside from the activities of the Department of Internal Affairs, use of government resources to support religious activities is not condoned (although there is no specific law prohibiting such support). If a formal request is given to the Government and permission is granted, governmental resources may be used. The Minister of Health currently is under investigation by the Ombudsman's Office for allegedly having used his office and stationary to send information and solicit contributions for the John Frum Movement, a political party that has two seats in Parliament, and simultaneously is a cargo cult (a group that believes Americans are going to come and give them money, material wealth, and assistance).

Missionaries representing several Western churches brought Christianity to the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some foreign missionaries continue this work; however, the clergy of the established churches is now primarily indigenous. Current missionary activity includes the Summer Institute of Linguistics, which translates the New Testament into indigenous languages. The Government does not attempt to control missionary activity, which includes representatives from the Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics.

There are no government-sponsored ecumenical activities.

During the period covered by this report, governmental respect for religious freedom improved in the wake of the repeal in 1997 of the 1995 Religious Registration Act. The major churches would not register or support the Act, and the Vanuatu Christian Council appealed to the Government to repeal it; subsequently, tensions have calmed.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

In general there are amicable relations between the religious communities. However, some churches and individuals object to the missionary activities of nontraditional denominations and continue to suggest that they be curtailed. There continues to be pressure to reinstate controls.

Religious representation at national events is organized through the Vanuatu Christian Council. Ecumenical activities of the council are limited to the interaction of its members.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights. The Ambassador has discussed the status of religious freedom with the office of the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Secretary of the Vanuatu Christian Council. The Ambassador and the Embassy's consular officer also have met with U.S. citizen missionaries.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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