The role of religious workers in Papua New Guinea became the crux of a controversy as the Papua New Guinea government deported Kiwi lay missionary and Caritas volunteer Doug Tennent on June 12 for “blatant abuse of conditions of his . . . visa by engaging in sensitive landowner issues in East New Britain Province”.

Mr Tennent, who is currently staying in Hamilton, said his deportation, which was based on vague charges, has pitted PNG government officials against the Catholic Church.

“I think they didn’t realise when they did the deportation that it wasn’t about me. It was about the whole role of religious workers,” he said.

In a pastoral letter issued the same day Mr Tennent was deported, Rabaul Archbishop Francesco Panfilo suggested “powerful and wealthy institutions and personalities” were behind Mr Tennent’s ouster from the country.

“I want to inform all [sitting] candidates and aspiring candidates for national elections that neither the Archdiocese of Rabaul nor the Catholic Bishops’ Conference will take this matter lightly as it seems to imply that to work for justice is outside of a ‘religious worker’ status,” he said in the letter.

Mr Tennent explained he had been working on land issues as the administrator of the archdiocese under the direction of the archbishop and the archdiocese’s land board.

Apart from making sure that the archdiocese’s land holding is equitably distributed to the people and developing housing projects for the poor, he oversaw the archdiocese’s staff and finances.

Mr Tennent was also in the middle of helping Archbishop Panfilo negotiate a more equitable agreement on behalf of the people of West Pomio with Sigite Mukus Palm Oil Project being operated by a giant Malaysian multinational company known as Rimbunan Hijau (PNG) Group, when he (Mr Tennent) was unceremoniously expelled from the country.

Deportation

Mr Tennent said on the morning of June 9, an immigration officer called the archdiocese about wanting to see him. They agreed to meet later that afternoon.

The officer came with a number of people and asked to see Mr Tennent’s passport.

“When I showed him the passport he said to me that he had two orders signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Migration; one was for my immediate removal and one was for my arrest,” he said.

He brought the officer and the matter up to Archbishop Panfilo. The archbishop expressed surprise that Mr Tennent was being deported for doing his (Mr Tennent’s) job.

Over that weekend, Mr Tennent was detained and was also kept out of touch with the archbishop and his lawyers.

Although the Church was able to obtain a stay order for the deportation, the immigration officers withheld this information and had Mr Tennent board a flight back to New Zealand.

Before Mr Tennent left, Chief Migration Officer Solomon Kantha told him that he (Mr Tennent) could re-apply for a new visa.

Mr Tennent said a multi-faceted approach is being used to get him back to Rabaul.

“We are trying to get ready for a court action to say that there was a breach of the court order and I have to come back immediately,” he said.

He said he is also preparing a re-application for a new visa.

The PNG Catholic Bishops Conference secretary as well as the Papal Nuncio will also be talking to PNG Government officials about Mr Tennent’s case.

Mr Tennent said what upset him the most about this case was that he wasn’t given specifics on the “complaints” levelled against him and that he was not given a chance to respond.

“There is also the very serious issue — the implication that religious workers should not be involved in advocating justice issues when advocating for the poor and the marginalised is a Gospel mandate,” he said.

Mr Tennent said both he and the archbishop do not carry a grudge against the officials involved.

“We just want to get back and carry on with the work because we have an obligation to many people to get a number of things sorted out,” he said.

“Obviously, they saw the deportation as sort of putting us off-track. If anything, it strengthened the archbishop’s resolve,” he said.

Mr Tennent expressed his thanks to Hamilton diocese for assisting him with accomodation and workspace.

Caritas Aotearoa NZ expressed wholehearted support for Mr Tennent’s ongoing work as administrator of the Archdiocese of Rabaul, particularly in advocating for local people from the remote Pomio district of East New Britain to retain their land and by taking legal action against a large multinational company from Malaysia.

“Doug’s work is in line with Caritas’ own mission to work for a world free of poverty and injustice, including protecting the rights of indigenous peoples,” said Caritas director Julianne Hickey.

“We are supporting Doug to ensure he is able to return to Papua New Guinea and continue this important work.”

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