Would Jesus Christ Mind If You Flew to Paradise on a Sunday?

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The question is at the core of what may be the most remote political dispute on earth.

Imagine that a Boeing 747 is on the tarmac in Los Angeles or Tokyo ready to ferry you anywhere on earth. "Fly me out over the Pacific Ocean," you tell the pilot. "And when you're as far as possible from the problems of the Americas, Asia and Australia, start looking for an airfield."

Many hours later, you're stepping onto the tarmac in Raratonga, the capitol of The Cook Islands. Due to its circular shape, the island's 13,000 residents give directions by saying things like, "Your hotel is at 7 o'clock." To get there, you can take one of two buses: the clockwise bus or the "anti-clockwise" bus. But you're not interested in staying on an island so big that it can support two bus routes, however overlapping. So now you're on a smaller plane, and it ferries you another 40 minutes over water to a smaller island that looks just like this from the air:

aitutaki from the air.png

This is Aitutaki. The dark blue is the ocean, the white border is waves breaking on the reef, the bright blue is a protected lagoon, and the green mass in the upper-right-hand corner is the island itself. The airport is tiny. The woman who picks you up explains that you'll have no need for seat-belts. You're as far removed from the problems of the world as it's possible to be on this earth. Only now can you find out what it is that people argue about when they live on a remote paradise.

I did.

Of course, that isn't what led me there.

A couple months ago, I spent a week on Aitutaki while on my honeymoon. Do you doubt that it is a paradise?

Here is the view from the bungalow where we stayed at an idyll called Etu Moana:

beach front.png

 
I've never enjoyed better accommodations.

Yet the average Aitutaki resident has a view no less beautiful. The local diet includes a lot of fresh fish and tropical fruits. During dry spells the rain barrels can get low, but the water supply has always held out. There is no crime, no traffic, and a motor scooter or bicycle is sufficient for transportation. Jobs? There are few opportunities besides tourism, small scale farming, and fishing. While many are too poor to rebuild if their house is destroyed in a cyclone, there is reliable disaster relief from New Zealand, where Cook Islanders enjoy citizenship that doesn't work in reverse.  

All things considered, it is a happy island within a breathtaking lagoon, blessed in many ways besides, but with one controversy that overshadows all others. You see, it is a devoutly Christian island. And though it is heavily reliant on tourism, whether day-trippers from Raratonga intent on seeing that lagoon, or visitors like my wife and I who stay overnight in boutique accommodations, some on the island don't want anyone coming or going on the Sabbath.

Circle the landscape on a bike, as we did, and you come across any number of signs like this one:

jesus is our god sign full.jpg

  
As another sign put it, "The sanctity of Sabbath (Sunday) is of a higher value than the dollar - our tradition is being disrespected and violated. No Sunday Flights." Some religious people on the island feel so strongly about this issue that they've formed a dissident political party to contest the policy. They've also been known to go to the airport to protest flights that land on Sunday. More secular-minded folks think that the island has grown excessively religious over the years, and that forbidding flights on Sunday goes too far. They're unmoved by appeals to tradition, and point out that Christian missionaries nearly destroyed the ways of their Polynesian ancestors.

The controversy is further complicated by the fact that, while all religious folks on the island are Christians, a minority of the Christians are Seventh-day Adventists, who celebrate the sabbath on Saturday.

I never saw the controversy at its height.

There were no Sunday flights for more than a decade before 2008, when they began in an attempt to compensate for a fall in tourism revenue. "Churchgoers protested at the Aitutaki airport, carrying and planting various signs in opposition of Sunday flights. Additionally, approximately 900 people signed a petition against flights held on Sundays," according to one report, which more or less corresponded to the version of events I heard. "In anticipation of the protests, police and airport security staff arrived in Aitutaki (from Rarotonga) for safety purposes. The police arrested two protesters after they attempted to run onto the runway in protest."

Here's what happened next:

Protests persisted, and the opposition verbally denounced the protesters on multiple occasions. The finance minister, Terepai Maoate, admitted that the protests were affecting flights in and out of the island: many people refused to travel on Sundays following the constant protests. Additionally, the government refused to hold a referendum, saying that it was too expensive. In December 2009, about 1,300 people signed the petition against flights in Aitutaki...

The protests gained the attention of the political party Te Kura O Te Au, putting the protesters' demands into a legitimate political voice. Te Kura O Te Au's agenda included immediately suspending all Sunday flights and holding a referendum regarding the matter. Te Kura O Te Au did not, however, win the 2010 elections. The Cook Islands Party (one of the main parties) won the election instead. 

The drama died down after that. But Sunday flights remain the biggest controversy on the island, enough so that the few people to whom I casually spoke didn't want to put their name beside their opinion. Who wants to anger any neighbors on a remote island of less than 2,000 people?

Flights loom large within daily life on Aitutaki.

Air Rarotonga lands there twice a day, and people tell time by the sound of the scheduled flights arriving. Planes bring supplies, and loved ones on visits from Auckland or Rarotonga. Everyday, folks in tourism know that they must get their guests to the airport in time for the trip back to Rarotonga, and place perfumed leis about the necks of the new arrivals. The Pacific Resort, the conventionally showy property on the island, even built this absurd airport lounge:

airport lounge.jpg

   
So it isn't just religion at issue. If Sunday flights ceased, the culture on Aitutaki really would change. For a day, everything would be less busy than it is. There would be no direct contact with the outside world. Folks in tourism would still be working, but fewer of them. Is it legitimate for a majority on an island like Aitutaki to impose that sort of culture? Is a world with Sunday flights, as the market would dictate, any less of a cultural imposition on the religious? Does a denomination's notion of God's law give them a right to ask that others observe it? For the foreseeable future on Aitutaki, residents will be grappling with thorny questions of that sort. Without minimizing them, paradise may be a place where Sunday flights are the biggest controversy.

twilight aitutaki.jpg

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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