President of the Republic of Fiji
Government House

Ladies and gentlemen, young people of Fiji,

As Christians around the world gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I extend to all Fijians both here and abroad my warmest greetings and best wishes, along with those of my family.

I especially think of the men and women serving our country overseas, in uniform, as diplomats or as civilian volunteers. The thoughts and prayers of every Fijian are with you this Christmas, as they are with the loved ones you have left behind.

For Christians, this is a time to recall the central theme of the Christian message – that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

The wonderful thing about the Christmas message is that it resonates with all religions – the sense of renewal through the birth of a child, in this case the baby Jesus. So whether we are Christians or not, we can all appreciate the sense of joy and hope that Christmas brings.

Every part of the Christmas story is magical – the angels, the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, the shining star, the wise men, the Christ child lying in a manger.

From this most humble of origins has come Christianity - one of the world’s great religions.

How wonderful it is that Jesus wasn’t born to wealth and privilege but to an ordinary travelling couple – Mary and Joseph. And that he wasn’t born in luxurious surroundings but in a stable surrounded by sheep and cattle because there was no room at the inn.

It tells us that god is on the side of the poor and the humble rather than the rich and powerful.

And there are many other aspects of the Christian message that are common to all religions, especially Christ’s teaching that we should all love one another.

Here in fiji we’ve developed a wonderful tradition of people of all faiths sharing each other’s festivals. We share Diwali with our Hindu brothers and sisters, Eid with those who are Muslims. And everyone – no matter what their belief – gets into the spirit of Christmas.

In government offices and businesses, Hindus, Muslims and those of other faiths join in putting up the Christmas decorations and everyone enjoys the annual staff Christmas party.

In my experience, we don’t do this because we have to, or because some law or sense of obligation requires us to do so.

We do it unconsciously, naturally and respectfully because to our friends, neighbours or colleagues, these festivals or holy days are important to them and we want to acknowledge what it means to them, to share their joy.

No Fijian has a monopoly on righteousness or holiness. We are Fijians first and that is what unites us and makes us one nation.
But we share a variety of religious faiths and beliefs– or sometimes none at all – and our right to hold those beliefs must always be upheld.

Furthermore, no religion should be more favoured than any other when it comes to the running of the nation’s affairs.

That is why our new constitution stipulates that fiji is a secular state – that there is a formal, legal separation between state and religion. And that every Fijian has a constitutional right to believe in whatever they choose.

The constitution says that religion is a private matter. But it does not say that religious observance should be private.

Everyone is free to worship privately and publicly. In other words, there is no change whatsoever to what Fijians have always been able to do - pray or hold services in private, as individuals, or together in a group. But they do not have the right to force their beliefs on others.

I say all of this because there is evidently some confusion about the true constitutional provision.

But there is no question about what section 22 of the bill of rights says. Quote “every person has the right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief.

Every person has the right, either individually or in community with others, in private or in public, to manifest and practice their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching” unquote.

This is precisely the right that Christians are enjoying as they gather throughout Fiji to celebrate the birth of their lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
And the whole nation joins them in that celebration. Now, more than ever, the Christian message of love, compassion and tolerance needs to be centre stage in our national life, along with the similar messages of our other great religions.

As Fijians, we stand at the gate of a momentous year, the lead-up to the election before the end of September, which will introduce the first genuine democracy in Fiji’s history and restore parliamentary rule. The signs are extremely encouraging – four political parties registered so far, more than half a million Fijian voters formally registered, the hopes of an entire nation resting on a smooth and successful outcome.

Let us harness the Christmas spirit to renew our commitment to realize those hopes, to build a new Fiji based on genuine equality and justice for all. Let us all celebrate the universal values that Christ taught of love, tolerance, sacrifice and compassion.

Let us make 2014 the year that we truly come together as a nation, one united people. I am convinced that, together, great things lie ahead for Fiji.

I wish you all, wherever you are, a happy and blessed Christmas. God bless you all. God bless Fiji.