Israel Folau cries while delivering an Easter sermon.
Israel Folau cries while delivering an Easter sermon.

Folau backlash faced in Christian Tongan communities

THE Israel Folau furore has sent many in the devout Tongan community into hiding.

In a community firm in their beliefs, some are increasingly reluctant to share their - what can be divisive - religious views publicly.

Folau has certainly made their Christian beliefs divisive, and while some say he didn't have to, others simply say his views are shared by many.

Many in the Pacific Island community believe the controversy makes it hard for them to openly share their views.

"I think this has been a lesson for people who are a lot more worried about saying their faith," Dr Tangikina Moimoi Steen, a Tongan researcher at the University of Australia, told news.com.au.

"People are being quiet and watching it from the side.

"I think there is a time and place for when you say your faith, but as long as that is said in a way that is not divisive."

Apostle Taniela Haunga, of the Just Jesus Ministry, said when someone like Folau voiced their views it made it harder for others in their religious community.

"When they're thrown into the same category, people like to generalise," he said.

"People always question something they don't understand. He's put a lot of other people in a bad position with the same beliefs or background.

"I think it comes back down to being a simple mistake, human error, where he's shared his world view with the wrong approach."

Mr Haunga said the football players in their ministry were saddened by the situation Folau was in.

"He would have a lot of followers who consider themselves as gay," Mr Haunga said.

"A lot of people don't want to accept (what the Bible says) and continue living the life they choose to live.

"They choose not to believe in God because they know it will point out fault in their lifestyle."

One Tongan lawyer told news.com.au that if anyone else in their community shared the post Folau did, there would not be such uproar.

He too shares Folau's views, along with former Wallabies great Willie Ofahengaue.

On the day of the internal code of conduct hearing for Folau's ­appeal against Rugby Australia's move to terminate his contract, the first Tongan to represent Australia told The Australian he supported what the Wallabies star had said.

Folau's hearing will determine whether his $4 million contract is torn up in the wake of his social media post that said gay people would go to hell unless they repented for their "sins".

Last month he posted a Bible passage claiming hell awaited "drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators" unless they repented and turned to Jesus Christ.

"As Christians, we preach what we ­believe," Ofahengaue told the newspaper.

"He has a right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion and he is talking about what he believes. I think it is a bit hard on him to be sacked for saying what he believes and to face these sorts of consequences.''

But others, also devout Christians of Tongan descent, disagree with those defending Folau for freedom of speech reasons.

Dr Steen said people had to be responsible for what they said.

"I agree with the Christian beliefs, but I disagree with the fact that people think he's got the freedom of speech to say whatever he wants to say," she said.

Folau reacts after scoring a try against England in 2016. Picture: Rick Rycroft/AAP
Folau reacts after scoring a try against England in 2016. Picture: Rick Rycroft/AAP

"For me, people should be questioning if that's a Christian thing to say. We are taught not to be judgmental.

"I'm a Christian too but as a model to the community I wouldn't go there, purporting to incite fear, hate ... when we're supposed to bring people together."

Dr Steen said Folau's comments only created a further divide among people who already felt marginalised in society.

Many of Folau's Australian and NSW Waratahs teammates have spoken of their frustration with the superstar for dragging them through a public relations disaster.

Queensland Reds prop Taniela "Tongan Thor" Tupou said this week Pacific Islander players "might as well" be sacked for their Christian beliefs.

Aussie rugby stars such as Michael Hooper, Will Genia and Bernard Foley and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika have also expressed their disappointment in Folau.

Folau with his wife Maria Folau at Kenthurst Uniting Church after a Sunday service. Picture: Hollie Adams/The Australian
Folau with his wife Maria Folau at Kenthurst Uniting Church after a Sunday service. Picture: Hollie Adams/The Australian

Folau is facing a three-person code of conduct panel, chaired by Sydney lawyer John West, on Saturday. The panel also includes Rugby Australia representative Kate Eastman and Rugby Union Players Association representative John Boultbee.

The lawyer who spoke to news.com.au - a representative in the Tongan community - said Folau's comments had put everyone on notice.

"It's almost like we have to stand up for ourselves because it's something we believe in," he said.

"It's pretty much where we all stand. We do hold Christian beliefs and don't shy away from that. Some say it's divisive, others say it's divisive but it's the truth.

"I've considered it myself and the way I look at it is the truth."