Magazine article The Christian Century

Reconcilers in Madagascar

Magazine article The Christian Century

Reconcilers in Madagascar

Article excerpt

If you go online to seek information about Madagascar, you will be overwhelmed by references to animated films about zebras, penguins, and other zoo animals. Dig a little deeper, though, and you will find a still more amazing true story about the making of a country and its thriving Christian history.

An island off the coast of East Africa, Madagascar covers an area a little smaller than Texas. Like many African territories, it is growing rapidly in population. A country that had 4 million people in 1950 has some 24 million today, and that number should roughly double by 2050, making it more populous than Italy. This growing country has a vibrant Christian tradition; Christians make up roughly half the population. The country's people--the Malagasy--are a major migrant presence in France, and especially in newer French churches.

Christianity didn't arrive until 1818--a bicentennial is imminent--but the first believers were very determined, and took seriously their pledge to resist apostasy. Their efforts brought them into sharp conflict with the equally motivated pagan queen Ranavalona I, whom early mission histories recall as a diabolical persecutor, a female combination of Nero and Caligula. Catholics speak of her rule as "the time when the land was dark."

You get a sense of the country's Christian origins in the capital city Antananarivo (in popular usage, Tana), where no fewer than four cathedrals commemorate early martyrs. One of these, Andohalo, stands on an intimidating cliff which in the mid-19th century was the site from which stubborn believers were thrown to their deaths.

Persecution faded after Ranavalona's death in 1861, leaving a small church immensely strengthened by so many recent stories of martyrdom. Some of Ranavalona's successors required Christian participation quite as fiercely as the old queen had prohibited it. Since then, Christianity has grown by means familiar throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Initially, the missionaries laid their own foundations, but their efforts were soon overwhelmed by a series of native revivals, the Fifohazana. As often happens in Africa, these indigenous movements emphasize healing, undertaken by charismatic "shepherds," supported by faithful women disciples. One great beneficiary of the Fifohazana is the Malagasy Lutheran Church, which now reports 3 to 4 million members.

Also as in much of Africa, demography has vastly expanded Christian influence. Modern-day Madagascar has a population 12 times greater than in Ranavalona's time. …

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