From ANN, October 1, 2015:    More than 17,000 people rallied last week in a sports arena in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, to pledge their support for religious liberty. The day-long “Festival of Religious Freedom,” held September 26, was the first such event to be held in the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar.

Madagascar's Festival of Religious Freedom took place on September 26. Credit: ANN/Laurent Brabant

Madagascar’s Festival of Religious Freedom took place on September 26. Credit: ANN/Laurent Brabant.

The festival drew community and national leaders, including government minister Olivier Mahafaly, who heads the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization. The event was jointly sponsored by the Southern Indian Ocean Union of Seventh-day Adventists, and the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). Its purpose, said organizers, was to focus national attention on an often-overlooked, yet fundamental, human right, and to say “thank you” to the national government for continuing to protect the ability of all Malagasy citizens to worship in peace and security.

John Graz, long-time religious liberty advocate and former Secretary General of the IRLA, traveled to Madagascar on behalf of the IRLA to take part in the event. During his five days in the country, Graz spoke to journalists at an airport arrival press conference, attended three academic lectures on religious freedom, and gave the keynote address at the Festival, which was broadcast by the national media.

Graz also met with Madagascar’s Prime Minister, Jean Ravelonarivo, and commended the government for its continuing strong commitment to religious freedom and its care for religious minorities. Graz noted that although just seven percent of the population of Madagascar identifies as “Muslim,” the government recently included a Muslim festival in its national registry of public holidays.

Also attending the meeting were regional Adventist leaders Harivololona Rajaonarison, associate treasurer for the Indian Ocean Union Conference, and Fanara Andriamparantiana, conference president. Prime Minister Ravelonarivo thanked the Adventist denomination for supporting the principle of religious freedom for all people of faith, and spoke about the value Adventists add to Malagasy society through the church’s health and education work.

The Madagascar Religious Freedom Festival is the latest in a series of more than thirty similar events that have taken place on six continents since the very first festival was held in Lima, Peru, in 2009. According to IRLA Secretary General Dr. Ganoune Diop, these public rallies are an effective way to raise community awareness about the issue of religious freedom.

“It’s a civil liberty that, too often, we take for granted,” says Diop. “Yet recent reports show that more than two thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom restrictions are rated ‘high’ or ‘very high.’ If we cherish religious freedom, it’s good to express our gratitude, as well as call attention to the challenges others face in places where freedom is restricted by laws or by social hostility.”

There are some 140,000 Adventist members in Madagascar. Just over half the country’s population of 23 million people practice indigenous animist beliefs, while about 40 percent claim affiliation with a Christian denomination.

The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.