PNG HIGHLANDS TURNING TO ISLAM
By Fr. Franco Zocca SVD – Melanesian Institute (Goroka)
My interest in Islam stems from the 14 years I worked in Indonesia, where the great majority of the population is Muslim. When I came to PNG 20 years ago I set aside my interest in Islam since I thought there were no Papua New Guinean Muslims. I discovered that Islam had arrived in PNG about 15 years ago when I read a newspaper report that a mosque had opened near Kimbe in West New Britain. I visited it, and to my surprise, found that the new Muslim converts were Simbu people—originally Catholic—who worked on an oil palm plantation. I was even more surprised to learn that that they belonged to an Islamic reformist movement founded in India in the late 19th century called Ahmadiyya, after the name of its founder.
Later, I discovered that those Simbus were not the first Papua New Guineans to turn to Islam. The registration of the Islamic Society in PNG in December 1983 confirmed Islam as a permitted religion and from that time on, expatriate Muslims began recruiting (da’wah) locally. By 1986 four Papua New Guineans had pronounced the Sahadah (Act of Faith) and become followers of Islam. The first was a young man from Bougainville, who was given the Arabic name Bilal, which means “dark”. Four years later, according to the 1990 census, there were already 440 Muslim residents in PNG. By the year 2000, their number had risen to 756, of whom 476 were PNG citizens. Interestingly, out of the total of 756, 293 were living in Port Moresby, 204 in Simbu and 65 in West New Britain. Other pockets of Muslim citizens could be found in Morobe (56), Western Province (27), Western Highlands (25), West Sepik (23), and East New Britain (13).
What is the situation in 2013? Although the National Statistical Office (NSO) has not yet released the 2011 census figures that give a breakdown of people’s religious affiliation, I recently visited the Islamic Centre in Port Moresby and interviewed the leaders of the Islamic Society of PNG. They estimated the local Muslim population to be about 4,000. We will see whether this number is confirmed by the census results.
The Islamic leaders in Port Moresby said that Islam was growing especially quickly in the Highlands, particularly so in Simbu (the leaders of the Islamic Society of PNG are all from Simbu). New converts were coming from the districts of Gumine, Nomane, Chuave and Kerowagi—places where the people generally became either Catholic or Lutheran at the arrival of Western missionaries and Australian colonizers. They also said that people around Mendi and in the Hela region were interested in Islam.
When I asked the leaders why Papua New Guineans were converting to Islam, they gave several reasons, such as the respectable conduct of Muslims, the prohibition of alcohol and other intoxicating substances, and religious guidelines that give order and direction to the whole life of believers. They were also strongly of the opinion that Islamic beliefs and practices are more compatible than Christianity with traditional Melanesian values and customs. As examples they cited Islam’s acceptance of polygamy, the separation of men and women, avoidance of menstruating women, male supremacy, not walking behind women, and men’s wearing of beards and moustaches.
I also asked about barriers local people faced in becoming Muslim. The leaders cited the importance of pigs in social life and bride price, and modern Western influences on young people. It is not easy to convince modern Melanesian women to wear the jilbab (traditional Muslim dress for women) or men to renounce alcohol and pork. Another stumbling block is the bad name that Muslims have in the media, where Islam is frequently linked to fanaticism, terrorism and anti-modernism.
The Muslim community in PNG is currently served by 15 Islamic centres led by imams (leaders). Young Papua New Guinean Muslims have been sponsored to study overseas in Koranic schools in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Fiji. When they return they will provide their Islamic communities with much needed imams, teachers, scholars and Koranic lawyers. In the meantime Muslim children are instructed in the Islamic Faith and the Arabic language on Saturdays and Sundays.
It is still not easy to live as Muslims in PNG. For example, Islamic directives with regard to food and slaughtering of animals are not followed by local shop owners and butchers; pupils and workers are not allowed to interrupt what they are doing to perform the prescribed daily prayers and the Friday Noon Prayer at the mosque; and Muslims wearing the prescribed dress have been verbally and physically abused in public.
In early 2002, the Secretary of the Commission on Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Fr Bill Fey OFM Cap., together with other Catholic representatives, began meeting with representatives of the Islamic community. This Catholic-Muslim dialogue has continued, with some interruptions, up to the present. Fr Bill Fey, now Bishop of Kimbe, is still the main interlocutor on the Catholic side.
For Christian communities in PNG, and especially the Catholic ones, the rise of Islam in PNG raises some important and disturbing questions. Have Christian roots penetrated deeply or is Christianity only a superficial covering? What was lacking that young people educated in Christian institutions, and even in seminaries, are now turning to Islam? How can we face the challenges presented by the growing presence of Islam among our people? Perhaps this matter could be a topic of discussion at various levels within the Catholic Church in PNG. (cbcpngsi.org – firstname.lastname@example.org)