Mgr Georges Varkey Puthiyakulangara is Bishop of Port-Bergé, in the North of Madagascar. In an interview with ACN on 20 February this year he spoke about the challenges facing the Church, including the Islamisation of the island and the major problem of sorcery. He was speaking to Amélie de La Hougue.
ACN: Christians are a majority in the country as a whole, but are they present in every part of the island?
Bishop Georges Varkey: Their presence varies greatly according to the diocese. Catholicism is very much present in the plateau region, which was evangelized 160 years ago, but in my diocese that is not the case. Out of around 800,000 inhabitants, there are only 25,000 – 30,000 Catholics, and some believers of other Christian denominations, but 95% of the population are animists.
Is it true that the population is still strongly influenced by sorcery?
Yes, very much so! There are some villages that I am forbidden to visit on account of their belief in witchcraft. For example, one woman within my diocese went to give catechism lessons in a village that I am forbidden to enter, and her house was set on fire on two occasions. She had to move away. Belief in sorcery is still very much present in the bush villages. It’s because of the lack of education; the people don’t know anything else.
What about the relations with Islam?
Relations with the Muslims used to be good, but for some time now we have been seeing Islamists come in, and we are now confronted with the Islamisation of the country. The number of Muslims is increasing rapidly. In the past, there were only Comorese, Pakistanis and a few Madagascans, but now people are arriving from abroad, we don’t know how, and there is also recruitment within the country. They are building mosques everywhere. In fact, there is an agreement with the government to build 2,400 mosques! In my diocese, for example, there are no Muslims, and yet many mosques are being built. At the same time, they are coming to convert people, setting up Koranic schools and giving scholarships to the children who attend them. We have learned that in the universities the young, non-Muslim female students are being paid three Euros a day to wear the Burka. They are taking advantage of the poverty of the people, and especially of the students who need money! 85% of the people here are living below the poverty threshold.
So what is the major challenge facing the Church in Madagascar today?
One of the biggest challenges for us is education. In my diocese, around 70% of young people are illiterate, because there are no schools nearby and no adequate means of transport or communication. I’m trying to encourage religious communities to come to the diocese, but it is difficult. Some 53% of the population are aged under 18. We want to be able to educate the young people, so as to restore their sense of human dignity, help them to find work, to better educate their children; we want to be able to speak to them of God and help them in their vocation… But it is difficult to find teachers who will come to such isolated regions.
I understand the country is also faced by extreme corruption?
Yes, corruption is terrible. The government is introducing plans to combat this corruption, but it is difficult because it is deeply ingrained…
We are also trying to fight against “popular justice”, that is to say when people take the law into their own hands. And given the poverty everywhere (which is less in the big cities but worse in the villages) even such a simple thing as the theft of a chicken can mean that a person is judged by the village people and the thief is later found dead. We are working very hard within the Church to educate the people, through our homilies, by teaching the catechism and also through the justice and peace commissions which we have established in all the dioceses. And we are trying to be as close as possible to the Madagascan people, whatever their religion or beliefs, so as to help them and give them new hope in fighting against this corruption.
Madagascar is proposing to plant 100 million trees as a way of fighting back against natural disasters…?
Yes, because in Madagascar we are faced by two extremes – flooding in the north, (recently, in my diocese 1,600 houses were damaged by flooding) and droughts in the south. Both the Church and the government are encouraging people to plant trees in order to combat deforestation. For example, we are going to plant a tree nursery on the piece of land that was given to host the great Mass with the Pope last September. And I am also encouraging the people to plant fruit trees, and at the same time rice and manioc so that they can feed themselves.
What about the visit by Pope Francis last September? Did it raise people’s hopes?
The visit by the Pope was truly a blessing for the whole country. People of all faiths came together to listen to him, even people who are critical of the Church. There were more than a million people at the papal Mass. All the people forgot their problems for a time to take advantage of his presence, and he was truly welcomed as a man of God, concerned for everyone. His visit has left a lasting mark on people’s hearts.
Do you have a message for our benefactors?
Yes, I would like to thank them all for their help. Thanks to ACN, we were able to build a chapel in the prison where I was prison chaplain, as well as a room to be used as a library, for teaching catechism and combating illiteracy. This has given new hope to the prisoners and they can see the merciful face of the Church, which is there to help them and at the same time improve their conditions of life.
I ask you also to pray for my diocese. It covers an area of over 13,000 square miles (33,367 km²) and I have only 33 priests. I really have a great need of new vocations, of missionaries to evangelize and announce the Good News. We have many challenges, but God and the Virgin Mary are giving us the courage to move forward. We have our crosses, but we retain our trust in God. And we are also praying for all our benefactors, that we may work together for the glory of God.