A FEW MONTHS ahead of presidential elections, Madagascar is going through a grave political crisis. Christians have been a majority on the island since the 19th century. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but it estimated that Christians comprise 56 percent of the population of the island nation. Just named a cardinal, Archbishop Désiré Tzarahazana of Toamasina, president of the bishops’ conference of Madagascar, spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the situation in his country.
What are the strengths of the Catholic Church in Madagascar?
We dare to speak up and say the truth. We can speak out clearly because we are not politically partisan as some other religions are (for example, there are some pastors who want to be government officials, or even President…). I can honestly state that the only credible institution is the Catholic Church. Everybody is looking to us, because the Church speaks the truth and it is trustworthy.
What is the main challenge facing the Church?
In-depth evangelization. Because I ask myself this question: Why are we in such a critical situation as this when there is an increase in the number of Christians and the majority of our leaders are Christians? If we were truly Christians, we would not be where we are. How deep is our faith in reality? Numbers are a good thing, but not the most important. If we profess the faith, but the next day set upon our neighbor, and if we take no interest in other people’s lives—then we are not fully living our faith.
Have you also been confronted with the Islamization of the country?
Yes, the rise of Islamism is palpable! You can see it everywhere! It is an invasion. With money from the Gulf States and from Pakistan, they ‘buy’ people. You see young men setting off to study in Saudi Arabia, and when they come back they are imams. We organized a meeting with a group of imams to share our concerns, and one of the imams himself testified; he was one of our former seminarians! Of course, he did not say that he had been attracted by the money, but that is what is happening, on account of the poverty here. There is real pressure being exerted. For example, in the north they give money to women to wear the full veil, the burka, in the streets, in order to advertise the expansion of Islam in the country. Then, in the evening, they put on their normal clothes again.
In my own diocese there are mosques being built everywhere—even though there aren’t enough Muslims to use them. There is a plan to build more than 2600 mosques in Madagascar! And they are also bringing over Muslims en masse from Turkey. This is a phenomenon that greatly concerns us. Once or twice a week, Turkish Airlines unloads a plane full of Muslims, who then settle in the country, even out in the countryside; no one really knows what they’re doing out there, but they are settling and not leaving again! Our people are poor, but our country is rich and it is immense for 22 million people, so there is still space.
Is there a danger of radical Islam advancing in Madagascar?
For the moment we do not yet see too much of it, but for the future we cannot tell. The fundamentalists are beginning to establish themselves and, little by little, as their numbers grow, we start to wonder when they will really show who they are. This truly concerns us.
The Comores, near to us, have a large proportion of their population who live this extremist form Islam, and they too are settling en masse in Madagascar, particularly in Mahajanga. They marry local women, and the children of these marriages are brought up as radical Muslims.
How is the government reacting to this?
We have met with government officials on numerous occasions to alert them to the danger and to tell them what is happening, but they do nothing. Everything is nothing but hypocrisy. We seem to be a voice crying in the wilderness. We frequently speak with political leaders, even in the highest positions, to tell them directly about the various abuses—like the theft of land, for example. Some of our land was stolen by a notorious criminal, known to everyone, but not only was he not arrested, he was even granted victory in court! We are truly governed by corrupt individuals
And there will also be presidential elections in November this year?
Yes, it is all rather complicated; we don’t know too well what will emerge from it. We don’t know where we are going, but we pray to God that everything passes off well and that the Holy Spirit may guide us so chaos can be avoided.
Last year there were several attacks on Catholic convents. What is the situation like today?
These attacks die down for a time, and then they start again. Sadly, this phenomenon of insecurity is persistent and it’s very painful—not only in the towns but also in the countryside. People are afraid to go out to work because of the insecurity. And because of the rampant injustice, people take the law into their own hands; it’s mob justice that reigns today. As you can see, there really are many, many challenges facing those who wish to restore order in our country!
Do you have enough priests for the work of evangelization?
In my diocese of Toamasina I don’t have enough priests yet. I make appeals for missionaries, and we do our best to provide everyone with a good formation. Starting with the seminarians. There has been a growth in the number of seminarians, but with the extreme poverty we face here, we have to constantly ask ourselves if it is a matter of true vocations or if it is more a matter of looking for material security.
We have to discern very carefully. Besides, and again on account of the poverty, there are no roads, no means of communication, so that to reach to people in every single village is very difficult. The challenge we have set ourselves is to have a radio station that can reach every corner of the diocese, so that the Word of God and the words of the Church can be heard in every family. And then, after that, why not a TV station as well!
Do you think that Pope Francis will come as was suggested last March? What is the message you are hoping to hear from the Pope?
I cannot promise 100 percent, but we do have hopes. He certainly noted our request, and there is a strong probability that he may visit next year. There are lots of messages we would like to hear, but above all we want him to speak about the importance of acting justly, of stopping corruption, of governing the country well.
—Amélie de La Hougue