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New Caledonia - Religion

New Caledonia, like France, protects the freedom of religion and belief and applies the same laws on the Separation of the Churches and State. There is therefore no official religion.

Although, like most indigenous peoples, the cultural traditions of the Kanak people were inspired by animistic beliefs, Christianity is now their predominant faith. The majority of New Caledonians are Catholics but both the Protestant and Pentecostal churches are well established locally.

New Caledonia was separated from Central Oceania and erected into a distinct vicariate Apostolic by decree of 2 July and Brief of 13 July, 1847. Besides the main island, the vicariate included the Isle of Pines and the Belep and Loyalty Islands. The mission is entrusted to the Marist Fathers, who, besides ministering to the French settlers and convicts, devoted themselves sedulously and with the greatest success to the conversion of the natives. According to the 1911 statistics, the vicariate included: 35,000 Catholics (11,500 natives); 48 missionary priests and 40 brothers of the Marist Congregation; 126 sisters; 61 catechists; 68 churches and several chapels; 45 schools with 1881 pupils; 1 orphanage with 50 inmates.

Other minority religions are also represented. The Islamic faith, in particular, is espoused by members of the Indonesian community and by descendants of Algerians deported during the colonial era. The Muslim community is mainly based in the Bourail region, where travellers arriving from Noumea will find the historic Muslim cemetery and an Islamic Cultural and Prayer Centre.

Finally, Buddhism has been introduced by the Vietnamese community, mostly in Noumea.

The essential spirit of New Caledonia and of Kanak culture is enshrined in the ancestral rules and rituals of Kanak customary tradition. Coutume refers to all the social rules that govern the everyday life of Kanak clans, and it is vital that visitors show their respect for customary tradition where needful and appropriate.

At the time of first contact with the Europeans, there is no evidence of any belief in a supreme deity, but there was a belief in several sacred beings with special names who preside over the home of the dead or were believed to live on mountains. There was little doubt, however, that, as in other parts of Melanesia, the essential element in the religion of the people was the cult of dead ancestors. Offerings were made to the skulls of dead relatives, and certain men were believed to be able to summon the ghosts of dead chiefs and obtain from them information about the future.

Masks were worn on certain occasions, as in the rites which followed death and after the operation of incision. A feature of the culture of New Caledonia which distinguished it from other parts of S. Melanesia is the prominence of the cult of the sun. There was a definite cult of the sun in which the tombs of ancestors were visited and fires are lighted on 'altars' on the tops of mountains. Rites were performed both at sunrise and at sunset. The chiefs were especially associated with the sun, for, when a chief was dead, the people said, 'The sun has set.' There was a belief in a snake-like being inhabiting a cave, and there seemed to be other signs of a cult of serpents, although there were no snakes on the island.

There was much variety in the modes of disposal of the bodies of the dead. In one method of frequent occurrence the body was buried in the squatting position with the head above the ground so that the skull can be removed and preserved, this taking place six months after death in the case of a chief. The teeth may be extracted as relics, and the teeth of women may be sown in order to promote the growth of crops. The dead are sometimes interred in the extended position, as a special mark of honor. They were also mummified, especially among the chiefs of the northern part of the island. In some cases in which the body was preserved caves are used as funerary chambers, but more frequently the body, with the legs folded on the trunk, iwas placed on a platform in a banyan or other kind of tree.





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