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 Wednesday, 22 January, 2003, 06:45 GMT
Madagascar mixes religion and politics
Antananarivo skyline
The Church plays a prominent role in Malagasy society

Religion is close to the hearts of the people of Madagascar.

Approximately half of the population are Christians.

President Marc Ravalomanana is himself the vice president of the Protestant reform movement known here as FJKM.

Journalist and commentator Jean-Eric Rakotorisoa says that without the support of the Church, Ravalomanana would not have become president.

Church leaders are often consulted by the president

Pierre Ranjeva, former diplomat

"Religion played a big role, notably the Christian Churches - Catholic, Anglican, Reformist and Lutheran. They allowed Marc Ravalomanana to take power and get the support of the people.

"The Church allowed him to resolve the political crisis here and become president. So these churches had an enormous influence.

"Ravalomanana is the vice president of the FJKM and he played on religion in order to get elected."

Marc Ravalomanana
Ravalomanana's party easily won the last elections

President Ravalomanana certainly takes Christianity seriously and he expects the thousands of people who work for him in his private companies to do the same.

They have to attend regular services and hold prayer meetings before they start work.

His company trucks all have the number seven on them - a holy number in Christian theology.

He also used a quotation from the Bible - Mark 5, Chapter 36 - as a political slogan: "Don't be afraid, just have faith."

Blurring of boundaries

In the former Catholic monastery of St Joseph on the outskirts of town I met Father Remy Ralibera. He is the general secretary of the ecumenical movement of the all the major churches in Madagascar - the FFKM.

This is the first time the country has a president who is not a Catholic so is he worried that power has moved from the Catholic to the Protestant Church?

"The power is not with Protestants but with Marc Ravalomanana, who is a Protestant. That has not influenced the life of the nation directly.

"I am a Roman Catholic priest but for me there is no problem with a president who is Protestant, no problem."

Some commentators and critics though are concerned that there has been a blurring of the boundaries between Church and state.

People in Madagascar
Religion has always been tied up with politics in Madagascar

They say the first article of Madagascar's constitution talks of the secularity of government. So has this independence been lost?

Pierre Ranjeva is the former Malagasy ambassador to Brussels.

He thinks that because there was no real opposition in the last elections - the former ruling party Arema boycotted the polls - there are no real political entities and that leaves a vacuum that the Church is happy to fill.

"As there are not any political parties, the only organised institutions are the Churches. It cannot be disputed that the president used the power and structure of the Church.

"I have not done a sociological survey of the current government but I think that to be a Christian would be an enormous advantage, because it is thought that the Church leaders are often consulted by the president.

"It worries me. Where is the secularity of the state that is supposed to be a guarantee for democracy and diversity of opinion?"

The Church, for its part, seems to be listening.

The ecumenical movement, the FFKM, has just held its annual conference and it called for the independence and clear separation between politics and religion in Madagascar.

See also:

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