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Kawaiaha’o Church resumes construction of multi-purpose center

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Kawaiaha’o Church resumed construction on a multi-purpose building this morning after agreeing to changes that include reducing the amount of ground excavation that could disturb unmarked graves.

Still, opposition to the project remains from some Native Hawaiians with ancestors buried in the area, and protest demonstrations are expected.

Kawaiaha’o Kahu Curt Kekuna said in a statement that discussions with opponents over the last few months led to significant design changes, though differences remain.

“Over the past three months, the church has genuinely tried to reach a resolution and to bridge differences, going so far as to implement changes to its plans, at considerable added expense to the church,” Kekuna said. “Unfortunately, at this time we have been unable to resolve all of our differences, and we will be resuming excavation activities as permitted under state regulations and (a) court decision.”

Construction of the $17.5 million multipurpose center for the Honolulu church known as “the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii” was halted two years ago after the church unearthed 69 sets of human remains while using heavy equipment mostly to dig utility line trenches.

Work was scheduled to resume in February after the church received approval from the state Department of Health to disinter any remains discovered, and a Circuit Court judge refused to block construction. But protests on the day work resumed in early February prompted the church to hold off.

This morning, the church began digging test trenches using hand shovels to sample the presence of any human remains. The test trenching is a requirement of the State Historic Preservation Division, which must be notified of any discoveries of bones, or iwi.

The potential for discoveries has been significantly reduced, church officials say, because of a redesigned foundation for the building that is 2.5 feet deep instead of six to eight feet under the previous design. Subterranean space for an emergency generator and air-conditioning equipment also was eliminated.

The church said meetings with project opponents will continue. However, some are adamant that no iwi should be disturbed because native Hawaiian cultural traditions regard burials as sacrosanct.

“If they bring the shovels out, we’re going to stop them,” vowed Kamuela Kala’i in February.

Kawaiaha’o officials are asking that any demonstrations be conducted safely and respectfully off church property. The church has stationed several private security guards at property entrances.

Officials of Hawaii’s oldest church and Christian cemetery contend that no one is in a position to determine whether those who were buried on church grounds more than 50 years ago would have felt it was OK or not OK to move their remains for a project that will benefit Kawaiaha’o’s mission to spread the word of God.

The Department of Health agreed with the church that any inadvertent iwi discoveries are exempt from the state’s native Hawaiian burial law, which gives special protections to such burials, because the remains found so far were Christian burials of native Hawaiians mostly in coffins on the grounds of a church cemetery.

The multipurpose building has been in the works for more than five years. The two-story facility is designed with classrooms, conference rooms, a $1 million kitchen, a library, bookstore, church archives and a small museum of church antiquities.

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