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Doctrine leads church in burials controversy

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About 50 protesters gathered at Kawaiaha'o Church on Feb. 17 to protest the church's plans for a $17.5 million building that will displace human remains discovered on the site. The church's senior pastor, Kahu Curt P. Kekuna, said confrontation over the issue can be avoided "if one side doesn't try to impose its beliefs on others. Followers of both ancient Hawaiian beliefs and Christian doctrine can be respectful of each other."

While Kawaiaha’o Church has the utmost respect for the ancestral bones buried on its grounds, its Christian doctrine takes priority over ancient Hawaiian cultural beliefs that insist that remains should not be disturbed, says Kahu Curt P. Kekuna, the church’s senior pastor.

At the heart of a building project controversy, which has provoked two community protests at Kawaiaha’o in the past two weeks, is "a spiritual battle," Kekuna said in an interview. But it doesn’t have to occur "if one side doesn’t try to impose its beliefs on others. Followers of both ancient Hawaiian beliefs and Christian doctrine can be respectful of each other," Kekuna said.

Construction on a $17.5 million multipurpose building next to the church was stopped two years ago after 69 sets of human remains, or iwi, were unearthed. A Circuit Court ruling in January allowed the work to proceed under state Department of Health permits, which requires that the bones be disinterred and relocated by experts in a pono (respectful) manner, Kekuna said.

The court determined that the 69 sets of iwi were all Christian burials in coffins, not bones buried in the ancient Native Hawaiian tradition, he said. Some remains have been left in place and others moved into a special storage crypt in the sanctuary.

Kekuna said Christians believe that the spirit of a body goes to heaven, but said, "I respect iwi; Christians respect iwi — that’s why we have graves. When I visit my parents’ and grandparents’ graves, I treasure and revere them, but I don’t deify my iwi kupuna," he said.

Claire Steele, a church member opposed to the construction, said, "The spirits (of our ancestors) go to heaven, but the bones are still sacred and should be left in place. … It hasn’t always been easy, but Hawaiians have been able to harmoniously embrace both Christian and Hawaiian values. I think Christian and Hawaiian burials deserve equal respect."

Kekuna said Kawaiaha’o must give priority to following a Christian doctrine, as specified in a 1842 deed of conveyance by King Kamehameha III, giving the church property to its members.

"Our alii felt we needed to move in a different direction. That’s why they endorsed the work of the missionaries," he said.

About the 50 or so protesters who rallied Feb. 17, and a group of about 10 people on Tuesday at the church, Kekuna pointed out that Kamehameha’s deed also says, "Those people whose form of worship and whose doctrine are unlike those of this ecclesiastical body have no stake in this house and in these premises."

"Most protesters are not members of this church. Some have relatives in the cemetery. They’ve come onto our land and said because of our kupuna, this is our property," Kekuna said.

He said only two church members have actively opposed the project, "though I suspect there may be more." A small minority have objected in the past, but mostly on the grounds of "how can we afford this building," he added.

The church has almost 500 official members, and a majority of those who voted approved the project, he said. Kekuna emphasized that the church set up a Na Iwi Committee in case any more iwi were found so the bones would be handled with expertise and respect.

Steele, a graduate student of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said she is afraid the iwi will be lost as were the bones of three of her ancestors, when they had to be moved to make way for construction of the church 70 years ago.

A former trustee and member of the Na Iwi Committee, Steele said the group was not told a sewer line would have to be dug through the property "or we would have suggested a different plan." She said alternatives to the project could include purchasing the Word of Life building near Queen and South streets; or constructing "a more modest building that would keep the exact footprint" of the old Likeke Hall, which would also be less costly.

"Yes, progress needs to be made, but there’s a pono way of doing it — a responsible, sensitive way." Steele said. "The church is not forthcoming with a lot of information. The members are not well-informed to make informed decisions."

Edward Halealoha Ayau, executive director of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna ‘O Hawaii Nei (Group Caring For the Ancestors of Hawaii), said his organization opposes disturbing the iwi.

"The main question is why was the church allowed to develop in the middle of a cemetery" considered one of the most sacred places in Honolulu by old Hawaiians, Ayau said. "This is corporate Christianity at is finest."

Ayau says on the group’s website (http://huimalama .tripod.com): "Foremostly, ancestral burials sites must be left in place and undisturbed."

"Native Hawaiians possess mana which resides in certain parts of their bodies, especially na iwi. … Proper treatments for our kupuna is essential for maintaining our spiritual health and overall well-being because they exist in us. … The relationship between ancestors and descendants is one of interdependence — the living have a duty to care for the dead. In turn, the ancestors respond by protecting us on the spiritual side."

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