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John Paul Gets Tribal Greeting in Fiji, Celebrates Outdoor Mass

November 21, 1986

SUVA, Fiji (AP) _ Tribal chiefs, in a ceremony reserved for honored guests, today presented Pope John Paul II with a set of whale’s teeth and a roast pig to welcome him on his first visit to this South Pacific archipelago.

″By coming to Fiji I hope to encourage all Christians here and throughout the Pacific to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord,″ the pope said in response to the welcoming ceremony.

John Paul plans a 24-hour visit to the islands, his third stop after Bangladesh and Singapore on a two-week, six-nation tour of Asian and Pacific countries. The pope is scheduled to leave Saturday for New Zealand, and to return to Rome Dec. 1 after stops in Australia and the Seychelles.

Heavy drizzle was falling from a sudden monsoon shower when the 66-year-old pope landed at Nausori airport outside Suva, the capital. He was greeted by Prime Minister Sir Ratu Kamisese Mara and Gov.-Gen. Sir Penaia Ganilau.

The pontiff arrived as news reached the islands that four Fijian soldiers had been killed in a car bomb explosion in Lebanon on Thursday.

During the welcoming Mara said the deaths made it a ″sad and tragic day for Fiji.″

Officials said it was the worst single death toll since Fiji sent two battalions to join the United Nations peace-keeping force in Lebanon and the Sinai Peninsula. The U.N. troops are stationed between warring factions in the 11-year Lebanese civil war and help monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord in the Sinai Peninsula.

About 1,000 people, mostly children sheltering under umbrellas, welcomed the Polish-born pope at Nausori airport. They stood in silence, the traditional greeting for visitors of high rank.

The pope then drove to the city’s palm-ringed Albert Park, where tribal chiefs gave him the ritual welcome.

The chiefs handed the pope a mud-colored, alcoholic drink, called kava, in a coconut shell. He downed the brew in a single quaff. They also presented him with giant roots of the yaqona tree, from which kava is made. The drink is consumed on all ceremonial occasions.

The hourlong ceremony culminated in an elaborate dance by 200 chanting, spear-carrying tribesman wearing black war paint on their faces.

Mara said the welcome was ″the highest tribute we can extend to an honored guest.″

The pope later held an outdoor Mass that drew at least 20,000 people, many standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the rain-sodden ground.

Before the afternoon Mass, tribesmen wearing only loin cloths and leaves on their bodies and carrying heavy wooden clubs escorted the pope to the locally constructed timber altar.

In his homily, the pontiff urged Fijians to ″renew your efforts to appreciate and respect each other’s cultural diversity.″

There are racial tensions in the islands, which is nearly divided equally between Indians who came here in the 19th century as indentured laborers and the native Melanesians.

Fiji, an archipelago whose main exports include sugar and copra, covers 7,055 square miles in the South Pacific and is about 1,750 miles northwest of Australia.

Fiji has a population of about 650,000, of whom about 300,000 are Christians, 234,000 Hindus and the rest Moslems or Confucians.

On Saturday, the pope is scheduled to stop in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where he will celebrate Mass, before flying on to Wellington, the capital.

He will also visit the southern city of Christchurch before flying to Australia on Monday.

The Asian-Pacific trip is John Paul’s 32nd foreign tour since assuming the papacy in 1978.

Update hourly