Celebrations held throughout the land
MADINA, Papua New Guinea — The Baha'is of Papua New Guinea are celebrating the 50th anniversary of a community that includes thousands of Baha'is living in more than 3,000 localities in all 19 provinces of the country.
Rather than hold the festivities in a central location of this mountainous country where communities are often separated by difficult terrain, the celebrations are being held at variety of venues.
Some 700 Baha'is from the New Ireland region and their guests gathered on 8 May 2004 for the anniversary festivities in Madina where in 1958 the country's first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed. There are now 252 of those nine-member local Baha'i administrative councils spread throughout Papua New Guinea.
To mark the occasion, the local Baha'is built a memorial pool at the Madina Baha'i center as a tribute to the Baha'is who introduced the Faith to the area. Colored lights illuminated two large stars that were placed in the middle of the pool to symbolize Baha'u'llah and the Bab.
The guest of honor was Rodney Hancock, who came to Papua New Guinea in July 1954 from New Zealand to help establish a Baha'i community.
Mr. Hancock addressed the participants at the jubilee about the exemplary life of Violet Hoehnke an Australian Baha'i who introduced the Faith to Papua New Guinea, and who stayed at her pioneering post for 50 years.
For her services in Papua New Guinea Ms. Hoehnke received the accolade of Knight of Baha'u'llah from the then head of the Faith, Shoghi Effendi.
Confined to bed, Ms. Hoehnke was unable to attend the jubilee celebrations. She passed away one month later, on 4 June 2004, at the age of 87.
Mr. Hancock said that Ms. Hoehnke had corresponded with many Baha'is over the decades.
"She must have written hundreds, if not thousands of letters to encourage the friends [Baha'is] in their endeavors," he said.
Mr. Hancock also spoke of the difficulties of introducing the Faith in the 1950s, when the Australian Administration disapproved of any friendly association between expatriates and local people.
He had to obtain special permission from the government before visiting villages. It took more than a year before he and Ms. Hoehnke could introduce the Faith to the first Papua New Guinean to become a Baha'i -- Apelis Mazakmat, a teacher from Munawai village, in New Ireland.
"He [Mr. Mazakmat] told me that when he first heard of the Faith from [Ms. Hoehnke] it was like the answer to all his dreams and he wished to learn more about the teachings of Baha'u'llah," Mr. Hancock wrote in his book titled, "Longpela bun nating: My life as a Baha'i pioneer in Papua New Guinea."
Participants at the jubilee also paid tribute to some of the other early believers who have passed away, among them Axomerang, Kelep, Romalus, Sairu, Salomie, Sanaila, and Tivien.
At the celebrations, New Ireland provincial administrator Robinson Sirimbat praised the efforts by the Baha'i community to promote unity and understanding among the different religions in the region. A local government leader Dickson Bilas was also present.
Members of the National Spiritual Assembly Paul Lupai and Margaret and Michael Elias attended the celebrations.
Also present was Jalal Mills, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors for Australasia, who addressed the gathering about the history the Baha'i Faith in Papua New Guinea.
Dr. Mills' father, John Mills, was present in Madina when the first Local Spiritual Assembly was formed.
Guests enjoyed a lavish traditional feast prepared by the Baha'i women of Madina.
Baha'i choirs, string bands, and Christian "singsings" (traditional dancing and singing) provided the entertainment that continued till the early hours.
In Rabaul, some 600 guests arrived on 3 April 2004 at the jubilee venue, Kulau Lodge, after traveling to the Lodge down a road decorated with streamers, flowers, and a large banner.
Donald Tulai, who grew up in Rabaul, was the master of ceremonies. Among the participants at the celebrations was Roslyn Bale, the first Papua New Guinean woman to become a Baha'i in the local area.
A United Church choir performed a song, written for the occasion, and a Baha'i youth choir sang Baha'i songs. A dance group, wearing traditional costumes and headdresses, performed a dance that told the story of the first Local Spiritual Assembly.
Rodney Hancock and Jalal Mills also attended these festivities.
Radio Rabaul provided extensive coverage of the event in Rabaul, and a daily newspaper ,"The National," published a report about the events in Madina.
The local Baha'i communities in Alotau, Baimuru, Balimo, and Pencat will hold their jubilee celebrations later this year.
The Baha'i community is actively involved in educational projects. Local Spiritual Assemblies in the rural areas sponsor kindergartens and primary level school programs. Members of the community also hold devotional meetings, children's classes, and study circles, which are all open to the public.
More than 150 Baha'is from other countries came to Papua New Guinea during the past 50 years to assist the local Baha'is as they administered and developed their national community.
(For an obituary on Violet Hoehnke, see http://www.bahaiworldnews.org/story/307).