Vanuatu

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
May 29, 2018

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Executive SummaryShare    

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or traditional belief. The preamble to the constitution refers to traditional Christian values, but there is no state religion. In July the newly elected president, who is a Presbyterian Church pastor, said, “We have only one religion in Vanuatu and that is Christianity.” He also called on all Christian churches to stand together in unity. In October he urged politicians to revisit the constitution and “make amendments to address current issues.” Many persons said he was referring to a proposal from the Vanuatu Christian Council (VCC) that the constitution should be amended to allow only Christian faiths in the country. The VCC continued to call on the government to revisit the freedom of religion clause to not allow new, non-Christian faiths to develop in the country. On penalty of a fine, the law requires religious groups to register, but the government did not enforce this requirement. The VCC received a 10 million vatu ($95,200) annual grant from the government. The VCC chair said the funds would be “used for the benefit of each member of each church.”

VCC leaders reportedly continued to believe the government should revisit the freedom of religion clause in the constitution to prohibit non-Christian faiths from being established, although they did not make any public statements or organize marches as in 2016.

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. In visits to the country, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea periodically discussed religious freedom with representatives of the government, including proposed restrictions on new religious movements entering the country. Embassy representatives also discussed religious freedom on the radio and with the VCC and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 283,000 (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2009 census, approximately 82 percent of the population is Christian. An estimated 28 percent of the population is Presbyterian; 15 percent, Anglican; 12 percent, Roman Catholic; and 12 percent, Seventh-day Adventist. Other Christian groups, cumulatively comprising 15 percent of the population, include the Church of Christ, Neil Thomas Ministry, the Apostolic Church, and the Assemblies of God. Smaller Christian groups include Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons, who estimate their membership at more than 7,000). According to the census, approximately 13 percent of the population are followers of an estimated 88 other religious groups, including Bahais, Muslims, and several newly formed groups. The John Frum Movement, an indigenous religious group, is centered on the island of Tanna and constitutes less than 1 percent of the population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees individual freedom of “religious or traditional beliefs,” including the freedom of conscience and worship, subject “to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and to the legitimate public interest in defense, safety, public order, welfare, and health.” Any individual who believes these rights have been violated may apply “independently of any other possible legal remedy … to the Supreme Court to enforce that right.” The Supreme Court is empowered to issue orders that it considers appropriate to enforce these rights if found violated and to order payment of compensation. The preamble of the constitution refers to a commitment to “traditional Melanesian values, faith in God, and Christian principles.”

Religious groups are required to register with the government. The law requires every religious body apply for a certificate of registration, pay 1,000 vatu ($10), and obtain the final approval of the minister for internal affairs to operate. Registration allows the religious group to maintain a bank account. The penalty for not registering is a fine not exceeding 50,000 vatu ($480), but the law is not enforced.

According to law, children may not be refused school admission or be treated unfavorably because of their religion.

The Department of Education prohibits discrimination, including on religious grounds. Government schools schedule time each week for religious education conducted by representatives of the VCC using their own materials. The government provides grants to church-operated schools and pays the salaries of teachers at church-operated schools in existence since independence in 1980. There is no uniform standard amount of time dedicated to religious instruction across all schools; however, the standard curriculum requires that students in years seven through 12 receive one hour of religious instruction per week. Parents may request that students be excused from religious education classes in both private and public schools.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In July the parliament elected Tallis Obed Moses, a Presbyterian Church pastor, as president. In his first official address as head of state, given at his home church, he said, “We have only one religion in Vanuatu and that is Christianity.” He also called on all Christian churches to stand together in unity. In October he urged politicians to revisit the constitution and “make amendments to address current issues.” While he did not elaborate, many people said he may have been referring to a 2016 proposal from the VCC that the constitution be amended to allow only Christian faiths in the country. The views of the president followed a statement by the minister of internal affairs in 2016 suggesting the country should consider reviewing the constitution to provide more “control on religious movements entering the country.”

The government interacted with religious groups through the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the VCC, composed of the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Presbyterian Church, Church of Christ, and the Apostolic Church, with the Seventh-day Adventist and Assemblies of God Churches having observer status. The chairman and secretary general of the VCC were members of the Constitutional Review Committee established by the parliament in 2016. The VCC received a 10 million vatu ($95,200) annual grant from the government. The VCC chairman said the funds would be “used for the benefit of each member of each church,” but did not elaborate further.

Government oaths of office customarily were taken on the Bible.

Ceremonial prayers at national events were organized through the VCC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

The VCC reportedly continued to believe the government should revisit the freedom of religion clause in the constitution to prohibit non-Christian faiths being established in the country, although it they did not make any public statements or organize marches as in 2016. Previously the VCC had spoken out against what they said was growing interest in Islam in the country but did not make any similar statements during the year.

In most rural areas, traditional Melanesian communal decision making predominated. In general, if a community member proposed a significant change within the community, such as the establishment of a new religious group, the action required agreement by the chief and the rest of the community. This reportedly allowed for new, smaller, independent Christian religions to develop and be maintained at a local or tribal level.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and EngagementShare    

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country. The U.S. Ambassador to Papua New Guinea is accredited to the government and officials from the embassy periodically visited the country and discussed religious freedom with representatives of the government, including proposed restrictions on new religious movements entering the country. An embassy official spoke on the radio in August and highlighted U.S. support for religious freedom in the country and around the world. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives also met with the VCC and discussed the VCC’s views on the presence of non-Christian faiths in the country.