In Madagascar, ‘they are paying women to wear the burka’

BISHOP GEORGES VARKEY PUTHIYAKULANGARA of Port-Bergé in Madagascar spoke with Aid to the Church in Need about the challenges facing the local Church, including the Islamization of the island nation and the practice of sorcery.

Is it true that the population is still strongly influenced by sorcery?
Yes, very much so! There are some villages which I am forbidden to visit on account of people’s belief in witchcraft. For example, one woman within my diocese went to give catechism lessons in a village that I am forbidden to enter, and her house was set on fire on two occasions. She had to move away. Belief in sorcery is still very much present in the bush villages. It’s because of the lack of education; the people don’t know anything else.

What about the relations of Christians with Islam?
Relations with the Muslims used to be good, but for some time now we have been seeing Islamists come in, and we are now confronted with the Islamization of the country. The number of Muslims is increasing rapidly. In the past there were only Comorese, Pakistanis and a few Madagascans, but now people are arriving from abroad and we don’t know how. They are building mosques everywhere. In fact, there is an agreement with the government to build 2,400 mosques! In my diocese, for example, there are no Muslims, and yet many mosques are being built. They are also coming to convert people, setting up Koranic schools and giving scholarships to students. We have learned that in the universities the young, non-Muslim female students are being paid three Euros a day to wear the burka, the Muslim veil. They are taking advantage of the poverty of the people, and especially of the students who need money! And 85 percent of the people here are living below the poverty line.

VIew of Madagascar

What is the major challenge facing the Church in Madagascar today?
One of the biggest challenges for us is education. In my diocese some 70 percent of young people are illiterate, because there are no schools nearby and no adequate means of transportation or communication. I’m trying to encourage religious communities to come to the diocese, but it is difficult. Some 53 percent of the population is under 18. We want to educate young people, so as to restore their sense of human dignity, help them to find work, also so that they will better educate their own children; we want to be able to speak to them of God and help them in their vocation. But it is difficult to find teachers who will come to such isolated regions.

What about corruption and lawlessness?
Yes, the corruption is terrible. The government is introducing plans to combat this corruption, but it is difficult because it is deeply ingrained. We are also trying to fight against “popular justice,” when people take the law into their own hands. And given the poverty everywhere (which is less in the big cities but worse in the villages) even such a simple thing as the theft of a chicken can mean that a person is judged by the village people and later found dead. The Church is working hard to educate the people, through our homilies, by teaching the catechism and through the work of the justice and peace commissions which we have established in all the dioceses. We are also trying to be as close as possible to the Madagascan people, whatever their religion or beliefs, and to give them hope in fighting against this corruption.

—Amélie de la Hougue