November 13, 2015

Fiji’s First Adventist President Vows to Keep God First

, South Pacific Adventist Record, with Adventist Review staff

Fiji’s first Seventh-day Adventist president, Jioji Konousi Konrote, has been sworn in at the Government House in Suva, the island nation’s capital.

Luke Narabe, president of the Adventist Church in Fiji, attended the inauguration ceremony on Thursday, Nov. 12, and offered an opening prayer as part of the formalities.

A multifaith group of religious leaders also laid their hands on Konrote and gave a prayer of blessing.

The national parliament elected Konrote to the largely ceremonial role in mid-October. Under the country’s 2013 constitution, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and reserves certain powers that may be exercised in a national crisis.

Konrote, 67, also known as George, is a career soldier who rose through the ranks of Fiji’s armed forces to become the only Fijian appointed as a United Nations force commander in the 1970s. He served as UN assistant secretary-general and force commander of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, confirming Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 1978.

He later became a diplomat and a politician and was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist four years ago. He most recently held the twin roles of member of parliament and government minister.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, Adventist Record spoke with Konrote about his new role, which is notable not just because he is an Adventist but also because he is the first minority ethnic Rotuman to become head of state and the first president not to belong to a chiefly family.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: Has the election come as a surprise to you?

It was certainly a surprise. I didn’t expect it. I’m most humbled and very grateful for the fact that I was considered worthy to be appointed to the post.

Q: You do realize, of course, that this means you’re now officially a senior statesman. Does that make you feel old?

[Laughs.] I don’t feel old. I feel ancient!

Q: Is it correct to say you haven’t been an Adventist your whole life?

I’m a very new member of the church. I was born a Methodist and raised as a Methodist, but I left the Methodist church four years ago, so I’m a new member of the church. It’s a long story, but a lot of things prompted me and the whole family to make the switch, starting with the fact that I lived in the Middle East and in Israel, the land where the Savior walked.

Reading the Bible and going back and comparing it with the secular history convinced me. It’s not that I don’t like other denominations, but it was time I guess. God has His time and place for everything. When it was time to go, I was very much guided by the word of the Lord, you know, to “come out my people, come out from Babylon.” The rest is history.

Q: You attend the Rotuman Adventist church in Suva?

I became a member of the English church in Tamavua, but the church leaders decided that the Rotuman community was getting a bit big for the church and we should branch off and form our own church. So I’m part of that new group.

Q: How has your fellow Rotumans reacted to your election?

[Laughs.] I think like everybody else, people are surprised. But at the same time we’re most thankful. Coming from the only other indigenous community in Fiji, people are most grateful to recognize our little community’s contribution to nation building over the years. As the man on the spot, I’m equally grateful and thankful that the contribution of our little community is acknowledged.

Read Adventist elected as president of Fiji

The new president and first lady, left, with Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama and his wife at the Government House.

Q: You’re not only the first Adventist and the first Rotuman to hold this position, you’re also the first from a non-chiefly line. What’s the significance of that?

Since we became a republic in 1987, the president has always been along chiefly lines. But I don’t think this is an issue as far as this government is concerned. The 2013 constitution is all about equal citizenry, and it states that whoever is going to be appointed should have a record of service to the country.

Q: A part of that service is your leadership of the peacekeeping forces in Lebanon?

I spent almost 40 years as a soldier. I left the military and got roped in as a senior civil servant, being posted as a diplomat, and then elected to parliament. I have been asked the question, “How does it feel?” I say, “I’ve been serving the country and the people for most of my life, so at this time and moment I must continue to serve the nation — but at the highest level in the land.”

Q: You come to this role fresh from the prime minister’s party. Do you see the role of president as becoming more political?

On the contrary, I had to resign from politics and my position as a minister. In the appointment of president you’re above politics — you’re apolitical — and that is how I intend to work. I don’t take sides. As far as I’m concerned, I’m guided by the terms of the constitution. As a Christian, I’m guided by the divine precepts.

Q: What is your vision for Fiji?

At the end of the day we want Fiji to be one nation, one people, one destiny.

Q: Taking on a position like this comes with a new level of scrutiny. Adventists in particular will be asking, “Is this man going to represent us well?”

Not only am I going to represent our little community, but I will also represent all the people of Fiji, regardless of religion, race, or ethnic background. That’s my guide. But the fact remains: I’m an Adventist.

Q: So you’re saying Adventists shouldn’t be worried?

I don’t think they should be worried. People are happy. I’ve been getting the support of the people. All I’m asking is for all Christians, including our Adventist people, to keep praying and keep righteous before the Lord.

Q: Has it been a challenge for you to balance your Christian faith with everyday politics?

I’m very much guided by my conscience, and that is based on what is right before the Lord. Before I make a decision, I get down on my knees and ask the Lord, “Is this right before You, Lord?” And if it is, that’s it, that’s what’s going to be done. It sounds very simplistic, but that’s it. That’s the way I’ve been living my life.

It doesn’t endear me to a lot of people many times but … [laughs]. I’ve been a soldier all along. People say: “You’ve gone into politics. You’re a politician.” But I say: “No, I may be in politics as a minister of government, but I will always live my life as a soldier. What is right before the Lord will remain right. There’s no compromise when it comes to that.”