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Jesus Weeps in Madagascar

Remote, violence-torn island looks to church leaders to help restore calm.

On a map, Madagascar's capital city of Antananarvio is 8,800 miles from Washington, DC. But in reality, Madagascar may be as close as that can of Coca-Cola you had at lunch today. Madagascar is one of the world's largest exporters of vanilla, a key ingredient in Coke classic.

Tragically, life in the Republic of Madagascar, one of the world's poorest nations, is not living up to the animated fantasy that Dreamworks cooked up in hit feature films, "Madagascar" and "Madagascar 2." (These two films grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.)

In late January, Marc Ravalomanana, the president of Madagascar, closed the opposition radio station that Andry Rajoelina, the mayor of Antananarvio, operated. Broadcasters were airing comments highly critical of the government. The station closure touched off protests, rioting and looting. So far, the death toll is more than 30 lives lost. A number of the fatalities were due to electrocution from contact with security fences set up around food storage buildings, according to unofficial reports.

Madagascar has a population of 20 million. Christians are the largest organized religious group, representing some 40 percent of the population. Fewer than 10 percent are Muslim.

This week, CT via email asked Todd MacGregor (inset photo), an American serving as the Anglican Bishop of Tulear, a city in southeast Madagascar, to provide an on-the-scene perspective on the current situation. Here's an edited version of this email interview:

CT: Has the political violence stopped for the time being, and what is the extent of the damage where you are based?

Looting began here [Toliara/Tulear] when people began striking on Tuesday morning. All day Tuesday people were looting two local food companies (a warehouse and a wholesale outlet) owned by the president, and then they continued looting two other storehouses of rice/grain (23,000 tons total).

People where carrying 100 pounds of rice on their backs, on bicycles, in rickshaws, on motorcycles, cars and trucks. They also broke into the brand new anti-corruption house and looted everything. The police stepped in on Wednesday late afternoon to stop the looting, which had been going on for nearly 30 hours straight. Today [Friday] we are in a lull. There is another opposition strike called for at 3 p.m. in Toliara and Saturday in the capital.

CT: What are the root causes of these outbreaks of violence?

The root causes are numerous. I have chosen just a few to comment on: the economy, opposing leadership styles, and politics.

People are not happy about the economy. The majority of the people are extremely poor and life has not improved for them. The poor are getting poorer and the wealthy are becoming wealthier. Some claim the president may have used his position to benefit personally and financially.

The opposition leader claims that the president has become an authoritarian dictator. The president has been known on more than one occasion to dismiss high level people on the spot or at will. Yet he came into power when the country was one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

The president came into a difficult situation. Strong measures were needed to clean house. The president claims the mayor (34 years old) is starting a coup. Unfortunately at this time both parties have not met together to resolve the tension.

There are many tensions between current national government and mayor of Antananarvio. The mayor of the capital would like a transitional government and has called for days of demonstrations throughout the country.

The government shut down the opposition radio station (owned by the mayor) when the station broadcast a speech recording of former President Ratsiraka, who lives in exile in France. Then, there was retaliation by destroying the government TV and communications center, along with a majority of the president's personal business storehouses.

CT: How are local Malagasy Christian churches and leaders responding?

As of last Monday, the Anglican church has been appointed as head of the ecumenical consortium (Lutherans, Anglicans, Reform and Roman Catholic) in Toliara and all the leaders gathered on Wednesday as well as meeting this afternoon.

We have decided to have an ecumenical prayer service on Sunday afternoon. We encouraged each church leader to respond pastorally (in a godly way to all those involved) to this situation. We continue to meet to discuss what our actions will be. The looting, vandalism and violence have been condemned by the leaders.

CT: Are missions personnel staying inside Madagascar for now or are they evacuating?

To my knowledge, no one has been evacuated at this time. But the mission community has been encouraged to look at and prepare for emergency plans.

CT: In addition prayer support, what could American Christians be doing to help churches in Madagascar?

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. People can hardly afford basic necessities such as shoes and nutritious food, much less education, access to medicines and doctors and decent housing.

American Christians can be informed and help achieve acceptable standards such as the Millinnieum Development Goals. Through our organization called People Reaching People, we have several projects which can be sponsored in evangelism, education, and economic development.

CT: What will the role of church leaders be in bringing about positive change in Madagascar society, culture, and politics?

When I was consecrated as a Bishop in Madagascar in Dec. 2006, the Prime Minister said to me, "You are now not only a leader in the church, you are now a leader in the country."

The role of the church leaders in Madagascar is very important. Unfortunately, they sometimes have been seen as politically motivated. We want to make sure that what we do and say is not politically motivated but God- oriented and promotes the values and morals of the Kingdom of God.

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If you are in Madagascar and have news updates, you can email me here.

(Photo by George Conger)

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