"Christian Dream" of Madagascan Leader Irks Critics
Posted September 14, 2005
Sep 11, 2005 3:22 PM
Madagascan President Marc Ravalomanana says he "dreams of a Christian nation" but it is a dream that troubles Christians and non-Christians alike in this secular island state.
The president, who raised eyebrows in the press when he was re-elected vice-president of the Anglican church last year, rekindled the controversy over his religious views a week ago by reiterating statements he had made earlier in the year.
"I dream of a Christian nation," he told worshippers at a Sunday service.
"God's graces to Madagascar never cease to multiply," he added in remarks quoted in the local press and confirmed by a presidential adviser.
Detractors say that by expressing his religious views, Ravalomanana, who took power during a 2001-2002 political crisis, violates the constitution and marginalises the near-60 percent majority of non-Christians.
Forty-one percent of the 17 million people on this impoverished Indian Ocean island profess Christianity. Around 10 percent are Muslim, and the rest practice traditional beliefs based on ancestor worship.
"It's terrible for the president of a republic to say these things," said Father Edmond Razafimahefa, an Anglican pastor who supported Ravalomanana during the crisis but later fell out with him.
"It is not the job of our president to publicly favour one religion," he added.
Supporters say the public profession of a devout Christian faith by Ravalomanana, a wealthy businessman, is not incompatible with his duties as president.
"He is a Christian. He dreams of a Christian nation. This isn't theocracy -- in practice no one is trying to force Christianity on anyone," said senior presidential adviser Raymond Ramandimbilahatra.
Ramandimbilahatra, who confirmed the president's statements at the religious service, said he plans to keep working with churches and Christian charities, which the president believes are "the best means of developing the country".
But the remarks have worried colleagues and critics alike.
Former minister of energy and mines Herimanana Razafimahefa said: "It's bad news mixing politics and religion. There's a real risk of smaller religions being marginalised."
Muslim leaders also were taken aback.
"He's the first president not to respect the secularity of the state," said Kherdin M. Bassirodin. "He'll never make us Christian. There are nearly two million Muslims: how is he going to convert us?"
Christianity has been the badge of the powerful, educated elite ever since Welsh missionaries set up schools in Madagascar, the world's leading exporter of vanilla, in first half of the 19th century.
Ravalomanana's picture in the press shows him speaking at the pulpit more often than in any government building. Workers in his huge dairy company are told not to drink alcohol and encouraged to pray.
The churches were crucial in mobilising the popular support Ravalomanana needed to oust former president Didier Ratsiraka in the 2001-2002 political crisis over a disputed election.