Page last updated at 11:38 GMT, Sunday, 27 December 2009

Cook Island Christians pray for Sunday flights reprieve

No Sunday Flights sign
About 1,300 people have petitioned against flights on Sundays in Aitutaki

After the introduction of flights on Sundays to the Cook island of Aitutaki, John Pickford examines how the predominantly Christian island is reacting to its Sabbath being disrupted.

"The sanctity of the Sabbath is of a higher value than the dollar," declared the protesters' banner.

It was a wet Sunday in Aitutaki and I was looking at a bedraggled band of demonstrators outside the tiny airport.

When the local airline decided to add a Sunday service to its normal schedule it may have anticipated some hostility.

Most Polynesians have been devout Christians since the arrival of missionaries in the early 19th Century and on many islands Sunday is a special day.

church in Nuku'alofa, Tonga
Church should be the only place people go on a Sunday, says Tunui Mati

But on Aitutaki, as well as the airport protests, 1,300 people signed a petition against the flight.

"That's most of the adult population," declared one campaigner jubilantly.

Elections will be held next year and the protest continues.

I had been in the Pacific two months and was about to experience my ninth Polynesian Sunday. I was unsure about the ethics of riding a hired bicycle on the Sabbath but I thought I would risk it.

There is no better way to explore a 21st-Century Polynesian island than to "get on your bike" and cycle round it.

'Sunday best'

First stop was the Cook Islands Christian Church and, as I swished through the rain, I knew I was on safe ground here.

Aitutaki's famously beautiful lagoon had a mournful look but you cannot fail to be elated on a Sunday morning by the sight of a Polynesian congregation in its "Sunday best".

Before the missionaries we were always fighting each other. After they came there was no more trouble
Tunui Mati

Matriarchs are in hats, girls in starched white frocks, the men mostly in black, the church packed as usual and I sit in the wrong place - again - but nobody seems to mind.

There is deep, soulful singing, a woman feeding her baby and a sermon to hell's mouth and back - if you are lucky.

The Sun is climbing, I am on my bike again and it is getting hot.

Tempted by coconuts stacked outside a little grocery store, I find I'm in the headquarters of the Stop Sunday Flights campaign.

Deserted streets

Tunui Mati, a silver-haired man in late middle-age, says his leadership of the protests cost him his job at the airport. So what should an Aitutaki Sunday be like?

"Church in the morning, then we just eat and rest," he says. "No games, all TVs turned off and we don't go out on the lagoon."

I recall another Sunday in Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa, walking back from church through deserted streets.

A church going group of Samoans
Polynesians in white frocks heading to Church are an arresting sight

Every shop and cafe was closed and there was a wilting, enveloping stillness in the heat of noon, as if even the pigs had retired in respect for the day.

Yes, Tunui's ideal Sunday was a place I recognised.

A lady joins us and is introduced as the great, great, great, great grand-daughter of John Williams of the London Missionary Society.

The most successful missionary of his time, he brought Christianity to Aitutaki on 26 October 1821, then to the rest of the Cook Islands and Samoa, before meeting his nemesis in 1839 in a cooking pot on Vanuatu.

At campaign headquarters there is no doubt of Christianity's single biggest gift to the islands, apart from the gospels.

"Before the missionaries we were always fighting each other. After they came there was no more trouble," says Tunui.

But Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived - and died - in Samoa in the 1890s, saw the missionaries as mainly interested in clothes and money.


The islands are spread across around 2m sq km of sea

According to the most recent census, just under 20,000 people live on the Cook Islands

There is only one secondary school on Aitutaki. It educates around 200 pupils

They wanted the Polynesians to wear more and they wanted their churches well endowed. On both accounts they have succeeded.

A senior magistrate in Tonga told me that the poorer people on his island can end up giving half their income to their Church.

This happens because some churches - and there is an astonishing array of rival denominations across the Pacific from Mormons and Methodists to Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists - insist that gifts be declared in public.

And the poor cannot afford to lose face.

Exuberant dancing

One question which is beginning to be asked is how deep did Christianity go?

In Samoa the missionaries tried and failed to expunge tattooing.

In the Cook Islands, despite a 1900 GMT curfew for under-18s that lingered until the 1950s, they never stopped the exuberant dancing and drumming that the islands are still renowned for.

Cook Island children
Many children have names straight out of the Bible

There is little evidence that Polynesians are uncomfortable with their new(ish) religion.

On the contrary, Church and family are at the heart of most people's lives.

Back on my bike in Aitutaki I stop under the soothing shade of a big tree to consult the map.

"Hello!" A boy high in the branches is looking down at me.

Another "hello" and then his sister appears from nowhere.

"Would you like a mango?"

"Yes", I say to the tree climber, "but don't fall."

"He won't fall because he's a monkey," his sister says.

The boy throws down a mango and his little sister gives it to me in cupped hands.

What are your names?

"Caleb and Mary" they say. "And yours?"

"John," I reply.

"Ah, John the Baptist!" calls a voice from the tree top.

This is Aitutaki, in 2009, where boys still know their scripture and climb trees.

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