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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 22:45 GMT
Tragedy and hope in the Solomons
By Penny Spiller
BBC News

In 2003, seven members of an indigenous Anglican order of monks in the Solomon Islands were brutally murdered during ethnic conflict.

From left to right: Brother Francis Tofi, Brother Basil, Brother Tony Sirihi, and Brother Robin Lindsay
Francis Tofi (left), Tony Sirihi and Robin Lindsay (in black) lost their lives

British priest Richard Carter, a fellow member of the Melanesian Brotherhood, lived through the tragedy and has written about its impact on the community in a new book.

He spent 15 years as tutor, chaplain and brother to a community that seeks a simple, monastic life with peaceful aims.

With a reputation as peacemakers, the brotherhood were an obvious choice as mediators when the Solomon Islands became riven with violent ethnic rivalries in the late 1990s.

It was in that role that the brotherhood suffered its most tragic episode. Seven colleagues were killed at the hands of warlord Harold Keke.

"I thought a story like this could easily be forgotten and, for what the seven brothers had given, I didn't want that to happen," said Mr Carter, of his book In Search of the Lost.

"It is also about the movement though darkness and grief to hope, and that journey was one I wanted to write down."

Flourishing community

The Melanesian Brotherhood is the largest Anglican religious community in the world with some 400 brothers and more than 200 novices.

It attracts young men from across the Solomon Islands who spend a fixed term as novices - gaining an education and skills - before deciding whether to leave, or stay and take their vows.

Richard Carter
Through the grief there was hope. It was as if their deaths symbolised peace was possible in the country
Richard Carter

In his book, Mr Carter recalls his surprise at finding such a flourishing religious community in this remote part of the world.

He put it down to the "simplicity" and "humble courage" of the community's caring and sharing life.

But things were turning ugly in other parts of the Solomons as tensions rose between two ethnic groups from the main islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita.

Many indigenous people on Guadalcanal - the largest island and home to the capital Honiara - opposed the significant presence of Malaitans, who had left their under-resourced island in search of work.

Fighting between militants from both sides broke out in 1988 and continued until an uneasy truce was agreed in 2000.

One rebel leader who refused to disarm was Harold Keke, who led a regime of terror in Guadalcanal's remote Weathercoast region.

Throughout the conflict, islanders turned to the Melanesian Brotherhood for sanctuary and escape, as well as for help in getting to hospital and finding family members.

"People had no-one else to turn to. Schools had collapsed, the police force had collapsed and suspicion surrounded the government," Richard explained.

"Religious communities were seen as impartial. We were the only ones allowed to cross the barricades."

Ongoing vigil

It was as part of the peace process that Brother Nathaniel Sado headed to the Weathercoast with a fellow brother and a parish priest in April 2003.

Harold Keke had specifically requested Nathaniel join the mission as he knew of him through a relative.

Founded by native Solomon Islander Ini Kopuria in 1925
Headquarters at Tabalia in Guadalcanal
Evangelical purpose, taking Gospel to villages and islands
Way of life adheres to traditions and customs
Brothers train for three years as novices
Take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, renewable every five years

When the three were turned away upon their arrival, Nathaniel insisted on staying on. It later emerged he was put in a cage and continually speared until he had begged to die.

The killing of Nathaniel, "a very simple brother... gentle and kind", stunned the brotherhood, and not just because of its sheer brutality.

"Until that point, we thought Harold Keke trusted us. He frequently used the brothers as his messengers and had always respected the brotherhood," Mr Carter said.

They did not know at the time, but Harold Keke had become paranoid about people betraying him, including those closest to him. There were rumours he had killed his own relations.

Harold Keke believed Nathaniel Sado to be a spy simply because he came from the rival island of Malaita and had asked questions.

It was a month before the brotherhood learned what had happened to Nathaniel, by which time six others had set off to the Weathercoast to find him.

No-one knew they were heading straight to Keke's camp until they had disappeared, too.

The following few months were extremely tough for the brothers, who found themselves not only in the dark about their colleagues but also the target of attacks by Keke's men.

But the community "held together incredibly", says Mr Carter, keeping an ongoing vigil of prayer for the hostages.

They learned in August that brothers Robin Lindsay, Francis Tofi, Tony Sirihi, Alfred Hill, Patteson Gatu and Ini Paratabatu had been shot almost from the moment they entered the camp.

Turning point

Confirmation of their deaths came at the same time Harold Keke surrendered to the Australian-led peacekeeping force that had been brought in to keep order.

The bodies of the brothers are brought home
The brothers' deaths were a turning point for the Solomons

"It was an incredible turn of events. Side by side with the most terrible news we had ever received, somehow without a bullet being fired Harold Keke had surrendered," Mr Carter said.

The deaths marked a turning point not only for the brotherhood but also for the Solomon Islanders, who turned out in their thousands for the funerals.

"The brothers' deaths were the hardest piece of news to receive, and we just felt broken by it," said Mr Carter, who left the brotherhood earlier this year to become assistant priest at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London.

"Yet there was a tremendous sense in all of us they had done something incredibly courageous and out of love. Through the grief there was hope. It was as if their deaths symbolised peace was possible in the country."

Profile: Harold Keke
18 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
New charges for Solomons' Keke
09 Oct 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Solomons warlord surrenders
13 Aug 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Solomons missionaries 'dead'
08 Aug 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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