Tongan Baha'is parade to the palace

January 28, 2004

NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — Hundreds of Baha'is paraded through the streets of this capital city as they celebrated the golden anniversary of the Baha'i Faith in Tonga.

Escorted by the local police band, more than 400 Baha'is set off from the newly renovated national Baha'i center for their destination, the royal palace of Tonga.

They wore traditional Tongan woven clothing and carried flags and banners proclaiming such principles of the Baha'i Faith as the oneness of religion and the unity of mankind.

At the palace, the Crown Prince Tupouto'a, the first son of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, welcomed the parade.

Baha'is presented traditional gifts of roasted pigs, root crops, fine woven mats, tapa cloth, and other handicrafts as a sign of respect.

A local Baha'i dance troupe presented a traditional Tongan dance, called Lakalaka, which had been choreographed specially for this event and had been rehearsed for months.

Native American artist Kevin Locke, who represented the Baha'i community of the United States at the jubilee, performed a hoop dance at the gathering. His performance was shown on the national television news.

Following royal protocols, traditional orators Masila and Leka -- both of them Baha'is -- spoke on behalf of the Baha'i community and expressed their appreciation to the royal family.

Visit of Hand of the Cause of God John Robarts to Tonga, April 1972. (From left to right) Vilatu Tu'akihekolo, Mr. Robarts, 'Asita Fielea, Andrew Fielea. Slideshow
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Visit of Hand of the Cause of God John Robarts to Tonga, April 1972. (From left to right) Vilatu Tu'akihekolo, Mr. Robarts, 'Asita Fielea, Andrew Fielea.

In response, the Prince's orator, Vakalahi, assured the Baha'is that the Faith would continue to be under the blessing of the royal family.

He also noted many of the positive contributions of the Baha'i community to Tonga, such as the establishment of the Ocean of Light International School.

The school, located on the outskirts of Nuku'alofa, first opened in 1996 with nine students.

Now there are about 300 children at the school, 80 per cent of them from Tonga. Students also come from Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States.

The school provides elementary and secondary education, emphasizes high ethical standards, and offers a moral educational program.

The highlights of the jubilee, held from 24 to 28 January 2004, included a welcoming ball, with 600 in attendance, a morning devotional gathering attended by 500, and a luncheon attended by some 800 Baha'is and guests, including a member of the royal family.

Baha'is from various Tongan island groups, such as Vavau, Eua, and Haapai, gathered for the jubilee. Others came from Samoa, the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and the continental United States.

Among the special guests was Stanley Bolton, who arrived from Australia as the first Baha'i in the country on 25 January 1954.

The day of the luncheon was the anniversary of Dr. Bolton's arrival in Tonga a half century earlier.

For his services in bringing the Faith to Tonga, Dr. Bolton received the accolade Knight of Baha'u'llah from the then head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi, as did two other pioneering Baha'is, Dudley Moore Blakely, and his wife Elsa (Judy) Blakely, who arrived from the United States on 12 July, 1954.

"I could never dream 50 years ago that such a gathering of Tongan Baha'is in the name of Baha'u'llah was ever possible," said Dr. Bolton at the luncheon.

"Much has transpired since the seed was planted 50 years ago. With the flow of pioneers the seed was watered, nurtured and steadily grew to become such a strong tree," he said.

The guest of honor at the event was the Hon. Ma'atu, the second son of the King. (The Hon. Ma'atu passed away on 17 February 2004 after suffering a heart attack. Representatives of the Baha'i community accepted an invitation to offer prayers at the memorial service held on 24 February.)

Also present at the jubilee luncheon were retired speaker of the parliament, Hon. Fusitu'a, accompanied by his daughter; Donald Blanks, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Australasia; representatives of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the Baha'is of Samoa, Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand; and many government officials, community leaders, and members of the Christian community of Tonga.

The evening program featured a choir competition. Seven groups -- from Tonga, New Zealand, and Australia -- competed. The songs were based on the Baha'i sacred writings and the themes of "Reflections on the Life of the Spirit," a course aimed at understanding prayer, life after death, and the spiritual nature of human beings.

On 27 January, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Australasia, Heather Simpson, spoke about the progress of devotional meetings, study circles, and children's classes, activities now being focused on by Baha'i communities worldwide.

Participants improved their skills in workshops on media and video, the use of the arts and of music, and community development.

During a presentation about the growth of the Faith in Tonga from just a few souls in the 1950s to 29 Local Spiritual Assemblies today, participants heard about visits from such prominent Baha'is as Hands of the Cause Collis Featherstone, Abu'l-Qasim Faizi, Rahmatu'llah Muhajir, Enoch Olinga, Ruhiyyih Rabbani, and John Robarts, and a member of the Universal House of Justice, Hugh Chance. Some 45 Baha'is from other countries have lived in Tonga for various periods of time to assist in the development of the Baha'i community.

The Tongan Baha'i community has a rich, courageous and dramatic history, growing amidst a society that was not initially receptive to a new religion. Among the early Baha'is were Latu and Mele Tu'akihekolo, Peni and Lupe Tutu'ila (Lupe being the first Tongan woman to accept the Faith), Tevita Tu'ipulotu and Seini Toutaiolepo, Lisiate Maka (who became a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors), Tevita Halaholo and Hesekaia Vaohingano.

Tonga has also sent out many Baha'is from its borders to help establish the Faith in other lands. For example, Mosese Hokafonu travelled extensively for the Faith throughout the kingdom and the Pacific, and Suliana Halaholo Korean, a notable translator of the Baha'i writings, lived as a Baha'i pioneer with her husband Masao in the Marshall Islands. She passed away there in 1982.

The first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed in Nuku'alofa in April 1958. Tonga established its own National Spiritual Assembly in 1970.

The five-day jubilee celebrations ended with a picnic and a dance: "Island Night." Participants from different islands wore their traditional local costumes as they performed dances.

The jubilee was an occasion of unprecedented media coverage of the Faith in Tonga, with the national TV channel and radio covering three nights of the jubilee. Reporters from two newspapers also covered the events.

(Sione Tuitahi and Sohrab Bolouri contributed to this report.)

(Jubilee photos by Daska Babcock-Halaholo, George Taufui Halaholo, and Ian Schutz.)