One million people hear Pope Francis’ Madagascar mass

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Pope Francis arrives to attend a meeting with the Bishops of Madagascar in the Andohalo Cathedral in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on September 7, 2019. (AFP / Mamyrael)
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Bishops of Madagascar arrives to attend a meeting with the Pope in the Andohalo Cathedral in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on September 7, 2019. (AFP / Mamyrael)
Updated 09 September 2019

One million people hear Pope Francis’ Madagascar mass

  • The Catholic primate's three-nation tour started in Mozambique and will end in the island of Mauritius
  • The last pope to visit Madagascar was John Paul II 30 years ago

ANTANANARIVO: An estimated one million people gathered at Madagascar’s Soamandrakizay stadium in the capital 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 pope, the first pontiff to visit in 30 years.

“Organizers estimate there are around one million people,” a Vatican spokesman said.

Organizers had said earlier they expected around one million attendees. Some described it as the biggest public gathering in Madagascar’s history.

Many people wore pope-emblazoned white and yellow caps — the colors 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 Argentine 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 criticized those who consider family “the decisive criterion for what we consider right and good.”

“How hard it is to follow him (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.”

After mass the pontiff will visit Akamasoa, a city founded by Argentinian priest Father Pedro, who has lifted thousands of Malagasy waste-pickers out of poverty.

Early 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 stadium.

“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.

Hery Saholimanana left his house in the early hours with three family members.

“I’m afraid of arriving after the 6:00 o’clock entry limit,” said the 23-year old IT student, walking briskly.

Rado Niaina, 29, said he left even earlier, at 2:00 am, for fear “of not finding space.”

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

Prospere Ralitason, a 70-year-old farm worker, arrived with some 5,000 fellow pilgrims from the central eastern town of Ambatondrazaka, 200 kilometers (125 miles) 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.

Thousands of young people — mainly scouts — gathered for a vigil at Soamandrakizay on Saturday, waiting hours in the heat for Francis to arrive.

“I am here to ask for the pope’s blessing to face the harsh realities of life, insecurity, poverty and corruption,” said 17-year old student Njara Raherimana.

“All this gives me hope for change in my country,” echoed fellow student, Antony Christian Tovonalintsoa, who lives on the outskirts of the capital.

During the vigil, Pope Francis lauded the “joy and enthusiasm” of the singing crowd.

He encouraged the youth not to fall into “bitterness” or to lose hope, even when they lacked the “necessary minimum” to get by and when “educational opportunities were insufficient.”

Earlier on Saturday, Francis made an impassioned plea to Madagascans to protect the Indian Ocean’s unique environment from “excessive deforestation.”

Weeks after a spike in fires in the Amazon, the Argentine pontiff told his hosts they should “create jobs and money-making activities which respect the environment and help people escape poverty.”

Madagascar — famed for its immense diversity of flora and fauna — is home to 25 million people, the vast majority of whom live in poverty on an income of less than two dollars a day.

More than half of its young people are out of work, even if many have good qualifications.

The last pope to visit Madagascar was John Paul II 30 years ago.

Francis also visited Mozambique earlier in the week, and is due to travel to the island of Mauritius on Monday.


UK relatives of Daesh ‘Beatles’ victims relieved as trial nears

Updated 23 September 2020

UK relatives of Daesh ‘Beatles’ victims relieved as trial nears

  • The evidence regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey was transferred to Washington immediately after Tuesday’s court ruling
  • The pair, who have been stripped of UK citizenship, are in the custody of US forces in Iraq

LONDON: Relatives of two Britons killed by a Daesh cell on Wednesday welcomed a breakthrough that advances the US trial of two Londoners accused of their brutal deaths.
The families of Alan Henning and David Haines said a ruling by the London High Court permitting the UK government to share evidence with US authorities about the suspects was a “huge result for us.”
“We have only ever wanted to see these two men being held accountable and brought to justice through a fair trial for their alleged actions,” they said in a statement released by the charity Hostage International.
The evidence regarding El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey was transferred to Washington immediately after Tuesday’s court ruling.
The pair, who have been stripped of UK citizenship, are in the custody of US forces in Iraq.
Kotey and Elsheikh’s four-member cell was dubbed “the Beatles” by their captives due to their English accents. They are accused of torturing and killing victims, including by beheading, and Daesh released videos of the deaths for propaganda purposes.
A two-year legal impasse concerning the suspects was broken last month when Attorney General Bill Barr said they would be spared execution if convicted after trial in the United States.
The United States wants to try them for the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and aid worker Peter Kassig, during 2014-2015.
Taxi driver Henning and former aircraft engineer Haines, who had both gone to Syria to do aid work, were beheaded in 2014.
Another of the cell’s alleged victims was British photojournalist John Cantlie, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012 and remains missing.
Cantlie’s sister Jessica Pocock told of the relatives’ intense frustration at the long legal wait.
“At times we felt absolutely desperate as to whether the legal system was ever going to be able to bring these two to justice — wherever they may be,” she told BBC radio.
“That was always terribly important to us to have a proper, fair trial. The families need nothing less than a fair trial,” she said.
The US Department of Justice welcomed the court ruling and expressed gratitude to Britain for transferring the evidence, although a trial date has yet to be set.