Madagascar is currently going through a grave political crisis, a few months ahead of the presidential elections. Christians have been a majority on the island since the 19th century. Although it is difficult to find reliable statistics, the latest Report on Religious Freedom in the World calculates approximately 56% of Christians on the island. Meanwhile, Archbishop Désiré Tzarahazana of Toamasina, who is also president of the Episcopal Conference of Madagascar, has just been named a cardinal by the Pope. In an interview conducted by Amélie de La Hougue during his visit to the headquarters of the Pontifical Foundation ACN, the prelate talks about the situation in his country.
What are the strengths of the Catholic Church?
We dare to speak up and say the truth. And we don’t get involved in the « party politics », that is to say, we can speak out clearly, but we are not politically partisan as some other religions are (for example there are some pastors who want to be ministers, or even President…) I can honestly state that the only credible institution in all this is the Catholic Church. Everybody is looking to us, because the Church speaks the truth and is trustworthy.
What is the main challenge facing the Church?
In-depth evangelisation. 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 our leaders are in the majority Christians? If we were truly Christians, we would not be where we are. And so I ask this question: How deep it 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 neighbour, 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 an islamisation 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 organised 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. And 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 over 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, the 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 – and so there is still space.
Do you see the danger of this radical Islam in practice?
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, and this truly concerns us.
The Comores, just near to us, have a large proportion of their population who live this extremist Islam, and they too are settling en masse in Madagascar, particularly in Mahajanga. They marry local Malgache women, and the children of these marriages are brought up as radical Muslims.
How is the government reacting to this?
We have met with them 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 go to speak to the 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, but he was even given the 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 as to avoid chaos.
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 continuing 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 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 us to restore order in our country!
Do you have enough priests who could be missionaries of the evangelization you were speaking bevor?
In my diocese of Toamasina I don’t yet have enough priests. 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. And so 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!
Archbishop, can you tell us a little about the ongoing formation of the formators of the major seminaries, in Rome this summer, a project sponsored by ACN?
This is truly a beautiful initiative and I thank you most sincerely! We were pleased and impressed by the formation, and we thank you and congratulate you on this initiative. I can truly affirm that it is a wonderful initiative that should be continued.
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%, 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 that he may speak of the importance of acting justly, of stopping corruption, of governing the country well… So that everyone may try to be a good citizen and a good Christian.
Do you have a message you would like to give to our benefactors?
The situation in our country is truly critical and we are now entering into a new crisis. So now is a time when we truly need your support, and I would like to thank all your benefactors for your initiatives and your prayers. I ask you please to pray, so that things may change here in accordance with the Gospel, and I ask you also to pray for me! Thank you so much.