Elder Cook Recalls Dedication of Fiji Temple amid Political Unrest in 2000
Contributed By Sarah Jane Weaver, Church News associate editor
“This temple has been a light to the nation. … It is a significant sign that God loves Fiji and all its people.” —Taniela B. Wakolo, former stake president in Fiji
Days after armed rebels took a group of government leaders hostage in Fiji in May 2000, Elder Quentin L. Cook traveled to the Pacific island nation and met with military leaders to talk about the upcoming dedication of the Church’s Suva Fiji Temple and the political unrest in Fiji that might prevent it.
Visiting Fiji again February 19–21 for the public rededication of the temple and a youth cultural celebration, Elder Cook recalled the private events leading up to the temple’s original dedication almost 16 years ago.
As was the dedication of the Suva Fiji Temple, the rededication was held in trying times; Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji just hours before the rededication on Sunday, February 21.
In 2000, Elder Cook—now of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—was serving as President of the Church’s Pacific Islands Area and was one of very few people on a flight from Auckland, New Zealand, into Fiji. At the airport he was greeted by hundreds of people trying to flee the country. To reach his appointment, he made his way through armed military checkpoints to the military headquarters in the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.
Many businesses had been looted, and significant parts of downtown Suva had burned. The military had declared martial law. Rebels were holding deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry and other members of parliament hostage.
But Elder Cook still hoped the new temple could be dedicated as planned.
At Queen Elizabeth Barracks, Elder Cook and the four local stake presidents in Fiji were received by military leaders.
“After we explained the proposed dedication, they were supportive but very concerned because they could not control the situation,” recalled Elder Cook. “There were random acts of violence throughout the city.”
The military leaders explained that they could not guarantee the safety of a prominent American church leader; President Gordon B. Hinckley was scheduled to dedicate the temple. Everyone advised against having a large group at the dedication.
Elder Cook left the military leaders believing that dedicating the temple was possible. They determined the official party of Church leaders could travel inside the country without a military escort; an escort would have made them likelier targets.
President Hinckley “approved one dedicatory session composed of a small group in the celestial room,” recalled Elder Cook. “He did not want to endanger the members, so except for the new temple presidency and a few local leaders, they were not invited.”
On June 18, 2000, just days shy of his 90th birthday, President Hinckley flew to Fiji for a three-and-a-half-hour stop. Accompanied by Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley and their daughter Jane Dudley; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland; and Elder Cook and his wife, Sister Mary Cook, President Hinckley made his way to the temple with what others in his traveling party would later describe as a “courageous willingness.”
The dedication in Fiji followed a rigorous travel schedule for President Hinckley. Before arriving in Fiji, he dedicated temples in Fukuoka, Japan; Adelaide, Australia; and Melbourne, Australia. The trip marked the first and only time four LDS temples were dedicated by a Church President during one overseas tour.
“When our small group arrived in Suva, Fiji, we only had to clear one military checkpoint before arriving at the temple,” recalled Elder Cook. “The dedication itself, the only one since the original Nauvoo Temple that has been held in such private and difficult circumstances, was simple and spiritual.”
Panapasa Tilley was a bishop and a member of the small choir that performed during the temple dedication.
When the choir sang after President Hinckley offered the dedicatory prayer, “we felt something has happened now. Now we have a Lord’s house dedicated.”
On the day he dedicated the Suva Fiji Temple, on June 18, 2000, President Gordon B. Hinckley shakes hands with members outside the temple's doors. Because martial law was declared after armed rebels took over a government building, only a limited number of Latter-day Saints were able to attend the dedication. Photo courtesy of the Office of the President.
The weeks after the dedication continued to be a challenging time for Fiji, Brother Tilley said. Mandatory curfews were enforced and public transportation was limited. But Latter-day Saints in Fiji had a place to get away. “The noise was so loud. We could get away from the noise [in the temple]. … We could just go in and say, ‘OK, we are out of this world.’”
Taniela B. Wakolo, a former stake president in Fiji who is now president of the Arkansas Little Rock Mission, attended the dedication. In a telephone conversation he said, “You could feel the pain in the hearts of the members of the Church” who could not participate in the dedication or see President Hinckley.
“It was not just the temple. For us it was a prophet of God setting foot on our land. A prophet of God in our land—that was very, very significant for the Saints in Fiji.”
Everyone in Fiji has felt the influence of the temple in the almost 16 years since the dedication, he said. “This temple has been a light to the nation. …
“We started to see the blessing to the land” immediately following the dedication, he said. “It is a significant sign that God loves Fiji and all its people.”
President Wakolo said members understood the “act of faith” that brought President Hinckley, Elder Holland, and Elder Cook to Fiji for the dedication. “They left the comfort of their homes to come to an island nation—depicted by a very small dot on the world map.”
They came despite political turmoil and civil unrest. They literally put their lives on the line to dedicate the temple in Fiji, he said. “Anyone discouraged was encouraged immediately. … When I saw them coming I started to see and feel hope. The message they carried with them was hope. … I did not think Fiji was the same again after the dedication.”