Pope John Paul II on Saturday warned this nation’s youth, who within the last two weeks have been participating in a wave of lethal political riots, to “reject violence, lies and scorn” and to overcome their uneasiness over their future in a land of rising unemployment and poverty.
The Pope’s remarks came as he addressed a rally of about 20,000 young people from all over Madagascar on his first full day on the island nation off the east coast of Africa. The Pope also held a Mass in the old Portuguese port of Antsiranana at the island’s northern tip.
John Paul will continue his fifth African tour with stops in the French island colony of La Reunion, Zambia and Malawi before returning to Rome on May 6.
His address to the Malagasy youth at a soccer stadium here in the capital largely took the form of responses to questions prepared by church youth leaders. He took the opportunity to admonish the youth to “respect your bodies, not risking thoughtlessly disease or accident . . . by turning to alcohol or drugs, which will reduce you to slavery.”
The pontiff did not specifically refer to AIDS as a disease, but then Madagascar may be the only African country where such a warning is unnecessary. Presumably because of the country’s isolated geography and insular culture, at last count there were only three Malagasy people who have tested positive for the AIDS virus. All were said to be sailors with ports of call on the African mainland.
Turning to the nation’s deteriorating economy, the Pope seemed to acknowledge only in passing the concrete obstacles standing in the way of a higher standard of living in Madagascar. The country’s crop of rice, a staple of which these people consume more per capita than any other nationality on earth, was decimated by cyclones in 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1987. The storms ruined Madagascar’s goal of self-sufficiency in the crop and necessitated costly imports of rice instead.
Meanwhile, a fiscal austerity program imposed by the International Monetary Fund as the price of millions of dollars in development grants and loans has forced up the cost of living in the cities more than threefold over the last two years. The IMF program included a devaluation of the Malagasy franc by more than half.
The Pope did suggest Saturday that the developed nations must shoulder more responsibility toward the Third World. The problem of development, he said, “Stands at the level of the planet: It engages the most favored nations toward the poorest.” But for the most part he laid the responsibility for development at the feet of the Malagasy people themselves.
And in an apparent reference to the recent riots, which were sparked by allegations that vote fraud contributed to President Didier Ratsiraka’s election to a third seven-year term, he urged the audience to begin “the defense of right and justice” by “your own personal comportment.”