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  • Fr Giorgio Licini PIME

Papua New Guinea; a Confessional State?

The move to declare Papua New Guinea a Christian Country and a Christian State appears commendable at first glance.  The Preamble of the Constitution will in that case open with the words,

We, the People of Papua New Guinea,

      united in one nation acknowledge and declare God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as our Creator and the Sustainer of the entire universe and the source of our Powers and Authorities, delegated to the people and all persons within the geographical jurisdiction of Papua New Guinea;

(Picture: Catholic Bishops Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands Reverend Fr Giorgio Licini PIME)

Along with other smaller amendments also in the Preamble, in the Fifth Goal, in the Social Obligations, in Section 1 and Section 3, this effectively turns Papua New Guinea into a confessional State. “A confessional State is a State which officially recognises and practices a particular religion, usually accompanied by a public cult, and at least encourages its citizens to do likewise” (Wikipedia).


In the past, confessional States were common in the Christian world, always endorsing a particular Christian denomination and Church: Catholic (Italy, Spain, Austria, etc.), Anglican (England), Orthodox (Russia). There are now very few surviving Christian confessional States with some, like England (where the King is the Head of the Church), practically embracing full religious pluralism. There are also several Muslim confessional States, especially in the Middle East, or Buddhist like Thailand, or Jewish like Israel. Opposite to that, some countries, like China, promote an atheistic identity of the State with strong limitations on faith communities and some particular religious tenets (the authority and role of the Pope in religious matters, for example, in regard to the Catholic Church).


The confessional State normally extends a larger or smaller degree of freedom to other religious communities or Churches present, active or trying to come within its borders.  So, Christianity, like any other religion, is totally prohibited in Saudi Arabia but allowed in Thailand or Israel; and similar situations occur in other confessional countries. What is common among all, however, is that, almost in all cases, the top positions of the State are precluded to the citizens members of religious minorities. The confessional State effectively establishes a group of second-class citizens by excluding them from the top political and administrative positions, particularly that of Head of State (Governor General in the case of PNG), prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chief justice, etc. The Muslim countries are quite rigid about this. The Christian confessional States are generally more flexible but have their own red lines. In the case of Israel, never will a non-Jewish person assume a State position.


The proposed changes in the PNG Constitution leave two big questions open. In a confessional PNG, will a Simbu Muslim or a Port Moresby-based Bahá'í, or a naturalized Hindu still be allowed to run for provincial governor, be elected Speaker of the House, and possibly become Prime Minister or Governor General? Or will all these and possibly other positions be restricted to “Christians” alone?


Second. With such amendments the State allows itself to define the concept of “Christian” and “Christianity”, possibly including or excluding particular beliefs, practices, books, groups, churches and promoting its own initiatives. A clear example of confessional State practice in PNG is the institution of the Day of Repentance on the 26th of August every year. It was a government initiative touching on the moral and religious sphere of the citizens, not necessarily negatively but independently established from Church and religion. It’s a small taste of the so-called “ethical State”, when the State and possibly the government of the day heavily intervenes to coerce citizens into what it believes to be good and moral.


Such a role by the State should be constitutionally limited. In Papua New Guinea dozens of versions of Christianity are active. Common celebrations and practices are to be treasured. But particular and individual choices must also be guaranteed. The Constitutional chart is not only about what a nation wants to be but also about what it wants to avoid down the line.


We remain of the opinion that the PNG Constitution is good as it has been since 1975 with its Melanesian values and perspectives expressed in National Goals and Directive Principles at its core. Should it be transformed into the Constitution of a confessional State, additional amendments are needed to safeguard the lack of discrimination of citizens vis-à-vis political positions and the full freedom of practice by all different Christian denominations.


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