Radical and conservative Maori leaders joined forces at Waitangi yesterday to back a call by Destiny Church Bishop Brian Tamaki not to "defile" New Zealand's soil with "foreign religions".
Veteran activist Titewhai Harawira and Anglican ministers Gray Theodore from Otara and Pereme Porter from the North Shore paid Bishop Tamaki the compliment of coming down off the stage on the Te Tii Reserve to hongi with him, even though protocol demanded that he should approach them as the tangata whenua of the local Ngapuhi tribe.
They then led about 1800 members of Destiny and other evangelical churches across the bridge over the Waitangi River to deliver a "declaration" to delegates at an Asia-Pacific Interfaith Dialogue meeting, stating that New Zealand was a Christian nation and rejecting a draft statement sponsored by the Human Rights Commission that this country had no "established religion".
The New Zealand delegation leader at the meeting, Auckland University academic Manuka Henare, agreed to take the declaration to the other 150 delegates from 15 countries.
"I will take it back to our delegation and discuss it with everyone else because they are curious," he said.
The drama of the protest, which overshadowed the dialogue meeting itself, was marred from Destiny's viewpoint only by a spelling mistake in the bishop's declaration, which stated: "We formerly recognise New Zealand as a Christian nation."
Church members from as far afield as Taranaki, Rotorua and Queensland sang hymns and affirmed their beliefs with placards such as "Not neutral" and "GodZone says it all". A big banner declared: "Let's establish New Zealand's Christian heritage."
Bishop Tamaki gave them the kind of stirring speech they were waiting for, declaring that Christianity underpinned New Zealand institutions such as the political process, the judicial system and our social arrangements.
"This nation must have the right to be able to discuss and to talk about whether we are going to establish and affirm and accept our religious identity as a country, or whether we are going to walk away and let that be lost, perhaps forever, and to allow foreign religions and foreign beliefs and other philosophies to proliferate into our country and begin to defile the very soil of this land," he told them.
Mrs Harawira, who chairs the Auckland District Maori Council, welcomed the crowd in the name of Ngapuhi.
"We reach out to you, Bishop, and all members of Destiny Church because you represent every Maori that has gone along for 160 years believing that our whakaaro and our karakia for our mana, for whatever we are doing, was the right thing to do," she said.
Mr Theodore, who was born on the banks of the Waitangi River, invoked the first Christian sermon preached in New Zealand near Waitangi in 1814 and said yesterday's gathering reaffirmed a tradition of Maori Christianity that dated back almost 200 years.
Prime Minister Helen Clark, who was at the conference at the Waitangi Copthorne Hotel, acknowledged that "obviously New Zealand has had tremendous influence from Christianity", but said the country had never had a "state religion".
"Today we are a very multi-faith society. The world's faiths are here."