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17,000 back religious freedom at huge rally in Madagascar

Some 17,000 people rallying in support of religious freedom in a sports arena in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo. Image Laurent Brabant/IRLA

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Some 17,000 people rallying in support of religious freedom in a sports arena in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Image Laurent Brabant/IRLA

September 29, 2015 | Antananarivo, Madagascar | Laurent Brabant, IRLA

More than 17,000 people rallied at a Seventh-day Adventist-organized event in Madagascar to pledge their support for religious liberty.

The daylong “Festival of Religious Freedom,” held in a sports arena in the capital, Antananarivo, was the first such event to be held in the Indian Ocean island nation.

The festival drew community and national leaders, including Interior and Decentralization Minister Olivier Mahafaly.

The event was jointly sponsored by the Adventist Church’s Southern Indian Ocean Union and the International Religious Liberty Association, or IRLA, which has its main office at the Adventist world church’s U.S. headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Its purpose, said organizers, was to focus national attention on an often-overlooked yet fundamental human right and to express gratitude to the government for continuing to protect the ability of all Malagasy citizens to worship in peace and security.

“It’s a civil liberty that, too often, we take for granted,” said IRLA secretary-general Ganoune Diop.

Graz meeting with Madagascar’s prime minister, Jean Ravelonarivo, third from right.

“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,’” Diop said. “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.”

John Graz, a long-time religious liberty advocate and former IRLA secretary-general, traveled to Madagascar on behalf of the IRLA to take part in the Sept. 26 event. During his five days in the country, Graz spoke to journalists at an airport arrival news 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 commitment to religious freedom and its care for religious minorities. Graz noted that although just 7 percent of the population of Madagascar identifies as Muslim, the government recently included a Muslim festival in its national registry of public holidays.

The Madagascar Religious Freedom Festival is the latest in a series of more than 30 similar events that have taken place on six continents since the first festival was held in Lima, Peru, in 2009.

The Adventist Church has about 140,000 members in Madagascar. A little more than half of the country’s population of 23 million people practices indigenous animist beliefs, while about 40 percent identify themselves as Christian.

Seventh-day Adventist Church – Inter-American Division

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