Papua New Guinea: Unique challenges face some of the world’s most isolated Catholics

The country received its first cardinal last year, and many are hopeful about the Church’s prospects for growth in the small island nation.

Cardinal John Ribat of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, is pictured after a consistory at which he was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 19. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In October 2016, Archbishop John Ribat became the first cardinal from Papua New Guinea, a South Pacific nation of about 7.5 million people, more than one-quarter of whom are Catholic.

But in this geographically remote nation, tribal beliefs and superstitions can preempt Christian teaching. When incidents such as a sudden illness or death strike a community, people have been accused of sorcery and then banished, maimed, or killed.

Nationwide, seven out of ten women have been raped or otherwise assaulted, according to Human Rights Watch. And the capital city, Port Moresby—where about half the population lives in shantytowns—is so embattled by street crime that it’s routinely ranked among the world’s least livable cities.

Papua New Guinea, often referred to by the acronym “PNG,” has an abundance of natural resources, but political disputes, widespread corruption, intertribal conflicts, and pervasive crime have proven obstacles to national advancement. Another obstacle is that PNG is the world’s most linguistically diverse nation, with more than 800 languages spoken, and can be “a real tower of Babel experience,” according to Bishop Rochus Tatamai of the Diocese of Bereina.

Combine this “Babel” effect with the geographical isolation in which much of the population still live, and it can become very challenging to organize a large-scale society.

PNG has been inhabited by humans for about 40,000 years, but only gained its independence in 1975. The Church first arrived by way of French missionaries in 1847, but the early efforts to proselytize proved problematic. In 1855, an Italian priest and missionary, Giovanni Battista Mazzucconi, was killed by hostile natives; he was later beatified.

By the 1880s, the Church began to make significant inroads, and as the 20th century arrived there were several centers of missionary activity. Such progress brought risk, though, and on August 13, 1904, ten missionaries (including five nuns) were slaughtered on the PNG island of New Britain.

Yet many natives were converted, and these converts tended to engage less in intertribal violence. Missionary work was seriously constrained, however, by the World Wars, particularly World War II, which saw invasion by Japanese forces, who killed or imprisoned missionaries of any Christian denomination.

With missionaries forcibly removed, the occupying Japanese had tried to gain favor with local Papuan leaders by allowing men to take second wives. A PNG-born catechist named Peter To Rot spoke out against such practices, and as a result he was murdered in 1945 while in Japanese custody. His memory endures today as the nation’s most prominent Catholic hero, and his tomb is a destination for pilgrims. To Rot was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s visit to PNG.

The post-WWII era saw a rise in missionaries from Australia and the US. In 1966, the nation’s hierarchy of archdioceses and dioceses was established. There are now a total of 19 dioceses, including four archdioceses. Roman Catholicism is the nation’s largest denomination, with 27 percent of the total population, followed by Evangelical Lutheranism (19.5 percent), the United Church (11.5 percent), and the Seventh Day Adventist Church (10 percent), according to the US State Department.

Most Masses are delivered in Tok Pisin, which serves as the nation’s most prominent language. English is also an official language, but is spoken by just a small minority.

Officially, more than 96 percent of PNG’s population is Christian. However, many also believe in magic, including sorcery. In fact, until the Sorcery Act was repealed in 2013 (following the viral video of a 20-year-old woman being stripped and burned at the stake in front of a crowd), people had legitimate legal grounds for attacking someone suspected of perpetrating witchcraft.

In 2014, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands held an event titled “Church and Media – A Joint Reflection on Sorcery” in order to discuss this longstanding societal problem. And Arnold Orowae, the bishop of Wabag in the remote Enga Province, has threatened excommunication for any Catholics who partake in a witch hunt.

Those accused of sorcery are generally women, and there is often a misogynistic, sexually-charged element to the grizzly punishments given to suspected sorcerers, who might be banished, mutilated, or killed in a torturous manner.

Of course, accused witches aren’t the only women in PNG who face violence. Some 60 percent of men surveyed there have admitted to partaking in rape, and Amnesty International has described these rates of domestic violence as matching “those of a war zone.”

Many parts of the country are a “war zone” of sorts: the nation’s crime rate is “among the highest in the world,” according to the US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) 2016 Crime & Safety Report, which adds that PNG has among the world’s “lowest police-to-population ratios.” Carjacking and robbery are legion. The police—understaffed as they are—face additional challenges in receiving cooperation from local communities, which tend to “handle” their crime and punishment internally.

The Catholic Church, along with other Christian denominations, has been very assertive in creating youth groups to steer young people away from crime and idleness. The Church also provides trauma counseling and operates safe houses. Domestic violence is beginning to be treated more seriously, and there has been a reduction in domestic violence among PNG Catholics, in the view of Father Jacek Tendej, CM, rector of Holy Spirit Seminary in Port Moresby.

Father Tendej, a Vincentian priest, was ordained in his native Poland in 1991. A former principal of Krakow’s Vincentian Catholic High School and lecturer at the Vincentian Theological Institute, he was appointed as rector in Port Moresby in January 2014. Prior to his appointment, he visited PNG on a tourist visa in 2013, took language classes, and ventured to some of the most remote parishes on our planet. During his time in PNG he has “experienced a lot of new, stimulating, often demanding situations.” He says, however, that these situations have given him “deep satisfaction.”

His seminary currently has 49 seminarians. He estimates that there’s somewhere around 400 priests nationwide, and in his experience about 70 percent of them are PNG natives. He says the Church generally gets along with other denominations, but he notices that it’s losing some members to “new denominations and sects [that] are more loud” in their worship.

Still, he remains optimistic about the Church’s future in PNG, where the recent appointment of native-born John Ribat as the nation’s first cardinal could serve as a momentum-building milestone.

Ribat, age 60, has been outspoken about environmental issues, which the current pope champions. He also has opposed certain Christian groups seeking to abolish HIV medication in favor of prayer alone. Now in charge of the country’s largest denomination, his unafraid voice could help mitigate serious societal challenges.

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About Ray Cavanaugh 18 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

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