Sailing in for a jubilee

March 4, 2004
Baha'i children in Kiribati, 1997.

ABAIANG, Kiribati — The President of Kiribati and more than 200 Baha'is overcame a storm at sea to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the arrival of the Baha'i Faith in Kiribati.

They traveled the 15 kilometers from the main island of Tarawa to the island of Abaiang on 4 March 2004 to attend the festivities being held where the Baha'i Faith was introduced.

President Anote Tong and Madam Tong set out in a police boat and had just arrived at the lagoon when the storm hit. They made it ashore safely.

However, more than 200 Baha'is were in the open ocean on the 50-foot catamaran "Marawanraoi" and had to persevere through high seas and rain to reach Abaiang.

They arrived safely and in time for the celebrations to begin as planned.

The events included a speech by President Tong, performances of singing, dancing, and drama, and a feast of roasted fish, taro, breadfruit, pork, chicken, and coconut.

The joyous celebrations were fitting for a community that has seen more than 10,000 local people join its ranks over the last 50 years. The Faith has spread to 115 localities in Kiribati, and there are 38 Local Spiritual Assemblies.

The social and economic development projects of the community include the Ootan Marawa Baha'i Vocational Institute, the only teacher training institution for pre-school teachers in Kiribati. It is open to all, regardless of religion, and is assisted by the National Spiritual Assemblies of the Baha'is of Australia and New Zealand.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Kiribati, at the Baha'i World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 1998. Slideshow
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The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Kiribati, at the Baha'i World Centre, Haifa, Israel, 1998.

There are five pre-schools administered by Baha'i Local Spiritual Assemblies on Tarawa and the outer islands. They accept pupils of all religious affiliations.

The Elena Marsella Institute is a national permanent Baha'i training institute that develops human resources needed in the growth of the Faith.

The jubilee festivities, which were covered by two national newspapers and two national radio stations, were opened with a welcome by Baha'i spokesperson Teinabure Taukoriri.

In his address to the participants, President Tong said that the different religions worshipped the one and same God. He also gave advice on the role of secular and religious leadership.

"Governments of the land and spiritual governments should work hand in hand for the welfare of the people," President Tong said.

A report from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Kiribati was read to the participants by Atita Atanrerei.

The report recounted that the Faith was introduced by Elena and Roy Fernie, who left their home in Panama and arrived to live in the village of Tuarabu, Abainag, on 4 March 1954.

For this service, both Mr. and Mrs. Fernie were named Knights of Baha'u'llah by the then head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi.

The report said that the Fernies brought with them a piano and a radio, then very rare in the islands, and that Mr. Fernie was an amateur magician.

"They became friends of the people of Tuarabu village and people kept coming back to see more of Roy's magic tricks and to listen to the piano and radio they had brought," the report said.

"Among the people [coming for the entertainment] was Peter Kanere Koru, a Catholic teacher, who spoke English and he came to the attention of Roy and Elena when he said a sentence in English from the crowd when he was translating for the local people -- he soon became the first [Baha'i] believer in Kiribati."

The report said that opposition to the Faith from some quarters led to the deportation of Mr. Fernie. It also prompted the banishment of Mr. Kanere, via Tarawa to his home island of Tabiteuea. He was forced to leave his sick wife behind in hospital and she died a short time later.

Mr. Kanere did not meet Baha'is again until four years later, but he remained steadfast in his beliefs. By the time Baha'is were eventually able to come to visit him, he had introduced the Baha'i Faith to nine people on his island, the report said.

Activities by local Baha'is, by foreign traveling teachers and by visiting Hands of the Cause of God Collis Featherstone and Rahmatullah Muhajir-- as well as by Auxiliary Board member Mosese Hokafonu of Tonga -- led to the formation of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1967.

Among those participating in the jubilee celebrations were Taukoriri Eritai, who became a Baha'i at the time the Fernies were on Abainag, and Baha'is pioneers in Kiribati, Joe Russell and John Thurston.

Also attending was a representative of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of New Zealand, Michael Fudakowski, who lived for some 17 years in Kiribati with his wife, Robin White, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors in Australasia, and their family.

Mr. Dominic Tabuaka represented the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the Marshall Islands.

Messages came from a range of Baha'i communities including those in Australia, Canada, Hawaii, the Solomon Islands, Ukraine, the United States, and Western Caroline Islands.