Burning down of Maori church ignites race fears

It is a signal of the changed temper in New Zealand that the sight of flames leaping from an old wooden church in the middle of the night now arouses suspicion of racially-inspired arson.

The destruction of the Rangiatea Anglican church last weekend in the town of Otaki 40 miles north of Wellington would, in any case, have come as a blow to the country.

Rangiatea was built by one of the greatest figures in New Zealand history, the chief Te Rauparaha, who conquered much of the country at roughly the same time Europeans were settling. Although he probably never converted to Christianity, his church became a symbol of rare cross-pollination between the races, European and Maori.

Dozens of trees were hauled down to the coast by Maori, while European or pakeha sailors and whalers raised the roof beams.

The work was overseen by a young English missionary, Octavius Hadfield, also remembered for taking a group of Maori chiefs back to Oxford in the 1830s and there compiling the first Maori lexicon.

From the outside, the church was an example of the best early colonial architecture; inside, the atmosphere was overwhelmingly Maori, with great wooden pillars and tekoteko panels of decorative woven flax covering the walls.

The possibility that Rangiatea - the name means the "Abode of the Absolute" and derives from a sacred island west of Tahiti - was deliberately burned down adds an ominous dimension to the racial divisions that have emerged in New Zealand since the 1980s.

In the past two years there have been a series of tit-for-tat attacks, always at night, on various symbols of the rival races - a colonial statue here, a Maori community meeting house there.

Last month a group of Maoris in Northland burned down a school building in a dispute over land occupation. Before last weekend's fire, graffiti had been sprayed on the statue of Te Rauparaha and elsewhere in the churchyard.

Some in the local Maori community had no doubt yesterday about the cause and culprit behind the fire. "White power," they said.

There is in fact no such group or body - but the phrase represents something real in New Zealand: an increasing anger among many whites at the new Maori assertiveness and demands for reparation for stolen or confiscated land.

Te Rauparaha - who is also famous for composing the words of the haka that the All Blacks perform before rugby test matches - spent most of his life at war, before turning to the arts of peace in his last years.

For nearly a century and a half his handiwork was a symbol of concord. That it has now gone - either by accident or design - does not bode well for New Zealand.