Pope draws vast crowd in Madagascar

Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Sunday. He is on a three-nation tour of Indian Ocean African countries hard hit by poverty, conflict and natural disaster
Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on Sunday. He is on a three-nation tour of Indian Ocean African countries hard hit by poverty, conflict and natural disaster
Image: TIZIANA FABI/AFP

An estimated one-million people gathered at Madagascar’s Soamandrakizay Stadium in the capital Antananarivo on Sunday to hear Pope Francis say mass on the second leg of his three-nation African tour.

The massive crowd had waited patiently, stretching into the distance from the early hours, to see the first pontiff to visit the Indian Ocean island nation in 30 years.

Some described it as the biggest public gathering in Madagascar’s history.

Many people wore pope-emblazoned white and yellow caps – the colours of the Vatican – and they cheered as the pope-mobile made its way through wind-swept clouds of red dust picked up from the stadium floor.

During the homily, the Argentinian pontiff urged them “to build history in fraternity and solidarity” and “in complete respect for the earth and its gifts, as opposed to any form of exploitation”.

He spoke out against “practices that lead to the culture of privilege and exclusion” and criticised those who consider family “the decisive criterion for what we consider right and good”.

“How hard it is to follow [Jesus] if we seek to identify the kingdom of heaven with our personal agenda or abuse the name of God or of religion to justify acts of violence, segregation and even murder.”

In Madagascar – home to 25-million people – the vast majority live in poverty.

More than half its young people are jobless.

The country ranks 152 out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2018.

President Andry Rajoelina, who attended the mass with his wife, welcomed the pope’s remarks.

“As a Christian and a man of the state, I am fighting relentlessly against corruption, poverty and the ills that plague Madagascar,” Rajoelina tweeted. “We act first for the weak.”

One of those who attended the mass, Randria Nomena, said: “The mass was well done, despite the dust. I feel my faith has been revived.”

Early on Sunday morning, in Antananarivo’s Andravoahangy church, pastor Jean-Yves Ravoajanahary had briefed 5,000 people on the two-hour trek they would have to make to get to Soamandrakizay.

“We are going to divide worshippers into groups of 1,000 because the road is very dangerous. At this time, pickpockets and bandits are out to mug people,” he said.

One by one the groups started the journey, huddled together in the cold and singing praise to the Virgin Mary. Traffic was gridlocked.

Many had already set up tents on the outskirts of the city on Friday, festooned with posters of the pontiff.

Prospere Ralitason, a 70year-old farm worker, arrived with 5,000 fellow pilgrims from the town of Ambatondrazaka, 200km away.

“We are tired, but it’s worth making all these sacrifices to see the pope with our own eyes and receive his blessing,” he said.

On Saturday, Francis pleaded with Madagascans to protect the Indian Ocean’s unique environment from excessive deforestation.

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