International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by the report and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion.

Although traditions of communal decisionmaking sometimes conflict with the introduction of new churches in rural communities, government officials use modern law and traditional authority to maintain amicable relations among established and new churches. Both government policy and the strength of traditional authority figures contribute to the religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country is an island nation, covering approximately 4,707 square miles; its population is approximately 183,000. The great majority of the population belong to Christian churches, although many combine their Christian faith with some pre-Christian cultural practices. Church membership is primarily Presbyterian (approximately 48 percent), Roman Catholic (15 percent), and Anglican (12 percent). Another 30 percent are members of the Church of Christ, the Apostolic Church, the Assemblies of God, or the Seventh-Day Adventists. The John Frum Movement is centered on the island of Tanna and includes less than 5 percent of the population. Muslims, members of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) reportedly also are active. There are believed to be members of other religions within the foreign community who are free to practice their religions, but they are not known to proselytize or hold public religious ceremonies.

Missionaries representing several Western churches brought Christianity to the country in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some foreign missionaries continue this work; however, the clergy of the established churches is now primarily indigenous. Missionaries represent the Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics. Current missionary activity includes the Summer Institute of Linguistics, which translates the New Testament into indigenous languages.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The preamble of the Constitution refers to a commitment to traditional values and Christian principles; however, the Constitution also provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice.

In 1995 in response to concerns expressed by some established churches about the activities of new missionary groups, such as the Holiness Fellowship, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Parliament passed the Religious Bodies Act. However, the President never signed the act, and it never has been enforced. A few churches registered with the Government voluntarily, while some church representatives believe that it had a chilling effect on new missionary activity.

The Government interacts with churches through the Department of Internal Affairs and the Vanuatu Christian Council. Customarily, government oaths of office are taken on the Bible. The Government provides some financial help for the construction of churches for council members, provides grants to church-operated schools, and pays the national teaching staffs. These benefits are not available to non-Christian religious organizations. Government schools also schedule time each week for religious education conducted by representatives of council churches, using materials designed by those churches. Students whose parents do not wish them to attend the class are excused. Non-Christian religions are not permitted to teach their religions in the public schools.

Aside from the activities of the Department of Internal Affairs, use of government resources to support religious activities is not condoned (although there is no specific law prohibiting such support). If a formal request is given to the Government and permission is granted, governmental resources may be used. The Ombudsman's Office investigated the Minister of Health for allegedly using his office and stationery to solicit contributions for the John Frum Movement, a political party that is an indigenous religious movement on the island of Tanna.

The Government does not attempt to control missionary activity.

There are no government-sponsored ecumenical activities.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Government policy and practice contributed to the generally unrestricted practice of religion.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

In general there are amicable relations between the religious communities; however, some churches and individuals object to the missionary activities of nontraditional denominations and continue to suggest that they be curtailed. There continues to be pressure to reinstate controls.

Religious representation at national events is organized through the Vanuatu Christian Council. Ecumenical activities of the council are limited to the interaction of its members.

In rural areas, traditional Melanesian communal decisionmaking predominates. If a member of the community wants to start something new, such as a new church, the chief and the rest of the community must agree. If a new church is started without community approval, the community views this action as a gesture of defiance by those who join the new church and as a threat to community solidarity. However, the resulting turmoil so far has been resolved through appeals from traditional leaders to uphold individual rights.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting of human rights.

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