SUVA, 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 made his way through armed military checkpoints to the military headquarters in the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.
The leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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 this weekend for the public rededication of the temple and a youth cultural celebration, Elder Cook recalled the private events leading up to the 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 was to make landfall in Fiji just hours before the rededication Sunday.
In 2000, Elder Cook — now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — was serving as president of the LDS 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.
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 LDS Church leaders still hoped to dedicate the new temple.
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 respectfully explained that they could not guarantee the safety of a prominent American church leader; then-church President Gordon B. Hinckley was scheduled to dedicated 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 further 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.”
Elizabeth Sikivou served on the temple history committee in 2000 but was unable to attend the dedication. “It was hard to be on the outside,” she said.
However, what overcame the hurt from not being able to attend the dedication was the knowledge that the temple was being dedicated. “Then we could go to the house of the Lord. Everyone knew it would be all right.”
Panapasa Tilley was a bishop and a member of the small choir that performed during the temple dedication.
Excitement for the temple had been growing in Fiji since Oct. 15, 1997 — the day President Hinckley spoke during a member meeting about a potential temple in the country, he said.
“President Hinckley said, ‘Raise your hand if you want a temple in Fiji.’ We didn’t just raise one hand, we raised both hands up there.’”
He carried that excitement into 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.”
The weeks after the dedication continued to be a challenging time for Fiji, he 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 church’s 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.”
The memory of the dedication has remained “fresh” in his mind, he said, noting that as he recalled the sacred event “it is almost like I am there now. You just wish that every saint in Fiji could feel what I felt at that time.”
But, he added, everyone in Fiji has felt the influence of the temple in the almost 16 years since the dedication. “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.”