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Madagascar - Religion

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 23.8 million (July 2015 estimate), and according to the last national census in 1993, 52 percent adheres to indigenous beliefs, 41 percent is Christian, and 7 percent is Muslim. Although precise current figures are not available, Muslim leaders and local scholars estimate Muslims constitute up to 20 percent of the population, and other diplomatic sources estimate the Muslim population to be 25 percent. Muslims predominate in the northwestern coastal areas, and Christians predominate in the highlands. According to local Muslim religious leaders and secular academics, the majority of Muslims are Sunni. Citizens of ethnic Indian and Pakistani descent and Comorian immigrants represent the majority of Muslims.

Local religious groups report nearly half of the population is Christian. The four principal Christian groups are Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and the FJKM. Smaller Christian groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and local evangelical denominations. According to Christian groups, the most numerous non-Christian groups are adherents of indigenous religions. In addition, many people hold a combination of indigenous and Christian or Muslim beliefs.

Most people practice traditional religions, which tend to emphasize links between the living and the dead. They believe that the dead join their ancestors in the ranks of divinity and that ancestors are intensely concerned with the fate of their living descendants. The Merina and Betsileo reburial practice of famadihana, or "turning over the dead" celebrates this spiritual communion. In this ritual, relatives' remains are removed from the family tomb, rewrapped in new silk shrouds, and returned to the tomb following festive ceremonies in their honor.

Nearly half of Madagascar has indigenous beliefs that worship a supreme being called Andriamanitra, and see ancestors as a passage between the living and the dead. This religion also includes sacrificing zebus.

About 41% of the Malagasy are Christian, divided almost evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant. Many incorporate the cult of the dead with their religious beliefs and bless their dead at church before proceeding with the traditional burial rites. They also may invite a pastor to attend a famadihana. While many Christians continue these practices, others consider them to be superstitions that should be abandoned. Many of the Christian churches are influential in politics.

The church is the most influential part of civil society and plays an important political role. In 2002 and particularly 1991 churches played a critical role in helping shape the political dialogue. While leading church organizations have held a more limited role in the recent political process, their relatively strong vertical communication structures in church organizations gives them a potentially important role well beyond their primary mandate. Church-based networks are more effective than other non-NGO coalitions and among the strongest civil society advocates. Due to their extensive country-wide networks, long track record of development work with donor funding, and credibility in the public arena, the Christian churches have played an important role in the development in Madagascar. They have acted as service providers as well as civic educators (on issues such as corruption) and democracy watchdogs (human rights and election monitoring).

In the coastal regions of the provinces of Mahajanga and Antsiranana (Diego Suarez), Muslims constitute a significant minority. Muslims are divided between those of Malagasy ethnicity, Indo-Pakistanis, and Comorans. Muslim leaders stated that due to their particular settlement history and mixed marriages over time, Muslims remained negatively affected by the country’s nationality code, which restricts children born of Malagasy mothers and foreign national fathers from obtaining citizenship. While there were no official figures on statelessness, a study by the NGO Focus Development and the UNHCR, which sampled residents in largely Muslim communities, estimated that approximately 6 percent of individuals in the communities surveyed were stateless. Of this number, more than 85 percent were born in the country.

A firm belief in the existence of close ties between the living and the dead constitutes the most basic of all traditional beliefs and the foundation for Malagasy religious and social values. All the Malagasy peoples have traditionally accepted the existence of a supreme God, known commonly as Zanahary (Creator) or Andriamanitra (Sweet, or Fragrant, Lord). The dead have been conceived as playing the role of intermediary between this supreme God and humankind and are viewed as having the power to affect the fortunes of the living for good or evil. The dead are sometimes described as "gods on earth," who are considered the most important and authoritative members of the family, intimately involved in the daily life of the living members. At the same time, the razana (best defined as "ancestors") are the sources from which the life force flows and the creators of Malagasy customs and ways of life. The living are merely temporary extensions of the dead. Great hardship or trouble can result if the dead are offended or neglected.

Madagascar, “Tanindrazana” (Land of the Ancestors), lives up to the first word in its motto in the elaborate funeral rites practiced around the island. While half of the population are Christian (divided almost evenly between Roman Catholic and Protestant), many continue to practice the cult of the ancestors together with their Christian beliefs. Most Malagasy people respect the ties between the living and the deceased, whom they believe to continue to influence the fate of their living relatives. Unlike the U.S. where people are buried in large cemeteries, families in many areas of the island have their individual family tomb on a family-owned lot of land, built by their ancestors and maintained by the family. These tombs can be quite spacious and well decorated, with many stone-beds that can accommodate generation after generation.

Different regions have different funerary practices. Many Merina and Betsileo people from the Central Highlands perform the “Famadihana” or turning of the bones ritual. Among the Merina and Betsileo peoples of the central highlands, the custom offamadihana ("placing" or the "turning" of the dead) reaffirms the link between the living and the dead. This occurs when a person is taken from a temporary to a permanent tomb in the tanindrazana, and the remains are taken out of the tomb to be wrapped in new shrouds, or when a body is moved from one tomb to another. These ceremonies are costly, mainly because of the expense of providing food for a large number of relatives and guests. They represent for the peoples of the central highlands a time of communion with the razana and a means of avoiding or reducing guilt or blame. It is considered a serious transgression not to hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so. The ceremony is presided over by an astrologer, but the chief participants are the close relatives of those persons whose remains are being moved or rewrapped. In this regard, the famadihana resembles in spirit a family reunion or the more austere ancestral ceremonies of China and Korea, where the spirits of ancestors are invited to a feast given by members of a family or lineage, rather than the funerals of the West, which are "final endings."

The goal of the Famadihana is to reaffirm the relationship between the dead and the living, to celebrate the continuation of life, to ensure the protection afforded by the ancestors, and to consolidate the family ties among their descendants. Royal versions of the ritual are practiced in many different regions of Madagascar. The Fitampoha is the ritual bathing of the royal relics practiced in the Southwest of the island. A similar ritual, the Fanompoambe, is practiced in the Northwest. In the North, a ritual washing of the royal relics forms part of the Tsanga-tsaina festival.

The concept of “fady” is very important in people’s daily lives. Fady means taboo. It refers to sets of beliefs that prescribe the dos and don’ts of daily life, some of them universal around the island though most of them depend on the region, the particular family’s traditions, or even the individual’s circumstances.

Fady are taboos on the use of certain substances, particularly foods, or on the performance, including the timing, of certain acts. They continue to regulate much of Malagasy life. Many are connected with vintana, while others express certain social values. For example, to deny hospitality to a stranger is fady, as is the act of refusing this hospitality. The concept of fady often also expresses a well-developed metaphorical sense. According to one fady, it is wrong to sit in the doorway of a house while the rice is sprouting, since the door of the house is compared to the "gateway" of birth and by blocking it, one might impede the "birth" of the rice. It is important to remember, however, that fady, particularly dietary prohibitions, vary widely among different ethnic groups, and from village to village within the same ethnic group. To be at home in a different locality, travelers must acquaint themselves with a large number of local variations.

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Page last modified: 12-10-2016 19:48:41 ZULU