Mixing church and state in Madagascar

Antananarivo, Madagascar - Moves by Madagascar President Marc Ravalomanana to increase ties between church and state have raised fears that he may be trying to promote his own Protestant brand at the expense of the majority Catholics or the smaller Muslim community.

An air of "suspicion" has built up between Catholics and the government, says the Archbishop of Antananarivo, Odon Razakolona.

The most prominent example of this was April's expulsion of French Jesuit priest Sylvain Urfer after 33 years in the country.

The government says Mr Urfer was ordered out because of his opposition to a road-building programme.

He says it was because he has criticised the government on numerous occasions.

The decision, and the manner of his departure, sent shockwaves through the Catholic community.

He was driven to the airport under police guard, taken through customs separately from other passengers and was prevented from saying goodbye to the friends who had gathered to see him off.

He is unlikely to return.

Diplomatic row

"We are not normally interested in conflict with the state," Archbishop Razakolona told the BBC, "but we are disappointed with the way this expulsion was handled."

"Certain events here have led to misunderstandings. We accept the sovereignty of the state but we want to know the true reason for our priest being expelled."

Both the French foreign ministry and the Vatican have raised the matter with Madagascar's government.

Jean Roger Rabemanantsoa, a lecturer at the University of Anatananarivo, feels it unlikely that the government would risk alienating Catholics.

"The Malagasy people are a very religious people and I don't think politicians would neglect this fact. They may even use it to try and appeal to the people."

One example of the blurring of the boundaries between church and state was April's constitutional changes, which formally made Madagascar a Christian state.

Although the government insist this makes no practical difference, it has aroused fears among the 2.5 million Muslims in the country.

Some 50% of the population is Christian.

Some also point to the fact that President Ravalomanana is vice-president of his FKJM church. After the president's appointment, the head of the FJKM went on to declare his support for the head of state.

Charles Rakotonirina, secretary general of Marc Ravalomanana's FJKM church, denies reports that the president is using his position to favour members of his congregation.

"There is no advantage for Protestants. What has changed is that our president has openly declared himself a Christian, so he wants to work with the church," he said.

Marriage ban

There is a long history of rivalry between Catholics and Protestants in Madagascar.

Christianity was first brought to the island by the protestant London Missionary Society in the 18th Century.

Then the arrival of Catholic missionaries heralded the move towards Madagascar becoming a French colony.

Until the 1960s, both churches urged their followers not to marry members of rival congregations

But such competition appeared to have dwindled.

Former President Didier Ratsiraka was a non-practising Catholic and had few ties with any church.

Both Protestant and Catholic churches presented a united front in supporting President Ravalomanana against Mr Ratsiraka during the 2002 political crisis.

The president talks about enhancing "co-operation" between church and state but it is not clear what form that will take.

Some think it will benefit the people, as the church has a wide-ranging support network throughout a country which is notoriously difficult to travel around.

Presidential advisor Raymond "Moxe" Ramandimbilahatra says the government "rejects any form of theocracy" and insists that "there is complete separation between church and state."

Others fear that President Ravalomanana is trying to re-enforce his power by increasing control of the churches.

Mr Rabemanantsoa believes that, for better or worse, the country is moving towards a more religious style of government.

"This move has already been initiated by the present government and it might already be strengthening because of the decision the president has taken. He is going to associate everybody, especially the churches, in his actions."