Since the arrival of the Portuguese Jesuit Father Luis Mariano in 1613, followed in 1820 by Anglican and Presbyterian ministers, Christian Churches have plaid an increasing role in the country, especially after the Queen Ranavalona’s conversion in 1867. They contributed sizeably to the alphabetization of the local people through the translation of the Bible in Malagasy.
As French Jesuit Father Sylvain Urfer says, beside their usual social role, the Churches plaid a political role, either as a refuge or a consolation to those who were oppressed by the ruling power or its allies. In 1889, the Catholic Church condemned slavery and in 1953 the Catholic bishops supported claims in favour of independence. In 1980, the four main Churches – Calvinist, Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopal – formed the Council of Malagasy Christian Churches (FFKM). The Churches largely contributed to civil society and to “Forces vives” a coalition of opposition parties that forced President Didier Ratsiraka to embark on political reforms. References to Marxism and the obligation for all parties to belong to Ratsiraka’s National front for the defence of revolution were scrapped from the constitution.
After the election of President Albert Zafy in 1993, supported by FFKM, some cracks appeared in the front. In 200, FFKM decided to support Marc Ravalomanana against Didier Ratsiraka, who was at that time the boss of a yoghurt producing plant but also the vice-president of one of the Calvinist Church The Catholic Church became progressively more distant, especially after Marc Ravalomanana’s decision to call a referendum which abolished the secular status of the Malagasy state in April 2007. Since then, relations between Ravalomanana and Catholics deteriorated sizeably, as showed by the decisions to expel Father Urfer from the country and to ban a live program of Radio Don Bosco.
Two years after the coup that overthrew Ravalomanana, the FFKM was again asked to play a mediation role. Yet, Odon Marie Arsène Razanakolona, Catholic archbishop of Antananarivo, who had taken the leadership of the mediation, eventually gave up because the job had become impossible. The issues were the strong connection between the Calvinist Church and Ravalomanana and the uncompromising attitude of the two main actors of the crisis.
Last June, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) who has been appointed by the United Nations to play a leading role in assisting Madagascar in the transition process, expressed its intention to call again the Churches to mediate. But in the opinion of Radio Don Bosco’s director, Father Luca Treglia, such initiative is not a very good idea. “Indeed, says he, it is dangerous to give the Churches the responsibility of a mediation between parties because it could lead to a conflict between religions”.
Who then can help solve the crisis? In Fr Luca’s opinion, only the Malagasy people can but they were not given a chance to do so. In his opinion, the only way is to bring together all stakeholders, including parties, Churches, civil society and representatives of large national entities, in order not to exclude anyone.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is very active in the social arena, in particular through its education and health projects. According to Caritas Madagascar, the Church is supporting 200 primary health facilities and hospitals and manages more than 3,000 schools. In the Antananarivo outskirt of Tanjambato, the St Vincent de Paul Sisters of Charity are distributing some 400 meals daily to orphans and tuberculosis patients. In the ports of Tamatave, Majunga, Fort Dauphin and Diego Suarez the Catholic Sea Apostolate is helping fishermen and seamen to cope with a number of challenges. According to the mission’s director Félix Randrianasoavina, these challenges include the depletion of fish resources and the violation of the fisheries agreements by ship-owners who fail to embark Malagasy fishermen on their trailers.
Despite these problems, the mission has managed to improve the safety conditions on small ships and convinced traditional fishermen to wear lifejackets. This has reduced the number of casualties at sea. For many Malagasy, the Catholic Church’s presence is felt through Radio Don Bosco programs which can be followed everywhere. Most of them, including leisure programs, have an educational dimension, says the radio founding father, Fr Luca. The dissemination of Christian values, responsible love, environment protection and news are part and parcel of all programmes.