Controversy continued over the December 2013 attempt by the speaker of parliament to replace a totem pole in parliament’s main hall and masks over the main entrance with a Christian unity pole and biblical text, respectively. The Catholic Bishops Conference condemned the removal attempt and issued warnings about the rise of religious fundamentalism as a risk to the country’s traditional identity. The director of the National Museum, and former Prime Minister and founding father Sir Michael Somare also condemned the action, and won a court-ordered stay on the removal, which the court dismissed in March due to improper legal document notifications.
Controversy continued over the question of religious freedom and whether to ban non-Christian religions. In July 2013, parliament tasked the minister for religion, youth and community development and the Constitutional Review Commission to set up a bipartisan team to consult the public to determine whether or not the government should allow freedom of religion. The argument was that the national pledge and the constitution specifically state the country shall be a Christian country. Several church conferences and religious associations spoke out against the ban on religious freedom, declaring that it was against Christian principles. There were no significant developments during the year; however, the issue had not been resolved by year’s end.
While respecting church autonomy, the Department of Community Development pursued its policy objectives by cooperating with many religious groups that, in addition to proselytizing, provided education and health services.
In general the government did not subsidize the practice of religion. Churches ran half of schools and health services, and the government provided support for these institutions. Upon independence, the government recognized it had neither the funds nor the personnel to take over these institutions and agreed to subsidize their operation on a per-pupil or per-patient basis. In addition, the government continued to pay the salary and provide benefits for the majority of teachers and health staff (generally members of the civil service) who worked at these church-administered institutions, as it did for teachers and health staff of national institutions. The education and health infrastructures continued to rely heavily on church-run institutions.
The Department of Education continued to set aside one hour per week for religious instruction in the public schools. Representatives of Christian churches taught the lessons, and students attended the class operated by the church of their parents’ choice. Children whose parents did not wish them to attend the classes were excused. Members of non-Christian groups used family and group gatherings before and after school for religious lessons.