Madagascar: Protestant Leader 'Detained' As President Resigns

Antananarivo, Madagascar - The head of the largest Protestant church in Madagascar has been detained by unspecified military personnel following the resignation of President Marc Ravalomanana, according to reports from the country's capital, Antananarivo.

The reports said that the president of the Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar (FJKM), the Rev. Lala Rasendrahasina, was picked up on 17 March at a meeting with a newly-named four-member military directorate to discuss Madagascar's political crisis.

President Ravalomanana, who is also a senior lay official of the FJKM, had earlier resigned and transferred his powers to the military directorate, following a campaign by opposition leader Andry Rajoelina to force him out of office.

Information received in Geneva by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches - of which the FJKM is a member - indicated that the military directorate had been detained along with Rasendrahasina and that the wellbeing and whereabouts of those detained are not currently known.

The Xinhua Chinese news agency, quoting a local radio report, said the meeting had also included Rajoelina, and was taking place at the headquarters of the Christian Council of Churches in downtown Antananarivo. After Rajoelina left the meeting, the military leaders and the church president, seen as being supporters of the deposed president, were taken into detention by rebel soldiers who supported the opposition leader, the agency reported.

Earlier in the day Rasendrahasina had issued a radio appeal to Christian soldiers not to commit violence or killings amid the crisis. "I have asked Christians in the military to remember they are baptised and that they are not supposed to murder or to accept orders from superiors to kill," WARC quoted him as saying in a news release it issued on 17 March.

Rasendrahasina at that time described the situation for church people as being very tense. He said he had received two threats that his home would be "burned out", and that he and other pastors had hired security guards. Media reports say shops and schools are open, but wider violence is feared.

The Indian Ocean island nation has been gripped by a violent political crisis, which has caused at least 135 deaths since a dispute over democratic reform broke out in late January.

Violence broke out on 29 January when opposition leader Rajoelina, the former mayor of Antananarivo, called a demonstration to protest against the government's closure of a private radio station that had been campaigning for democratic reform.

He accused Ravalomanana, who came to power in a disputed 2002 election, as being a corrupt tyrant.

"Tensions are exacerbated by the prominent role of President Ravalomanana in the Church of Christ in Madagascar where he serves as its lay vice-president," WARC reported in its news release.

In Nairobi, an official of the All Africa Conference of Churches urged all sides to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

"Threats and ultimatums will not solve the problem," Mbari Kioni, AACC director of advocacy, research and communication, told Ecumenical News International. "We urge the two to uphold the rule of law. If the government is legally elected, how come we now say it will not govern?"

The AACC has postponed an Eminent Ecumenical Persons' visit to Madagascar, intended to show solidarity with the Church and the people there.

The British Broadcasting Corporation reported criticism in 2007 that Ravalomanana was promoting the Protestant church at the expense of the numerically greater Roman Catholic population or the smaller Muslim community.

Christianity was brought to Madagascar in the early 19th century by the Protestant London Missionary Society. The later arrival of Catholic missionaries coincided with a move towards Madagascar becoming a French colony in 1895, which it remained until independence in 1960.

In early March the secretary general of the French Protestant mission organisation DEFAP, the Rev. Christian Bonnet, warned that the FJKM was too close to the government, and that Ravalomanana was using the Protestant church to bolster his position.

"It is dangerous for the Malagasy people given that the main opposition leader makes no secret of his links to the Catholic Church. What will happen to the Malagasy Muslims or animists if the political debate radicalises around religious issues?" Bonnet wrote on the Web site of the Reformed Church of France.

In Nairobi, the Rev. Pius Rutechura, the secretary general of the (Catholic) Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa, said Ravalomanana and Rajoelina needed to "look at the greater picture of what is at stake".

He told ENI, "We want the two to take account of the interests of the people of Madagascar, not their personal interests."

The FJKM was founded in 1968 as the result of the missionary work of the LMS, the Paris Mission Society and the Friends Foreign Mission Association.

About 52 percent of the island's people follow indigenous beliefs, compared to 41 percent who are Christian, and seven percent who are Muslim.