The bell of St John’s Catholic high school, next to the cathedral in Antsiranana in northern Madagascar, sounded for the noon break and hundreds of students poured into the street.
Among them was Michael Beafara. With his schoolbag on his back, he hailed a tuk-tuk, as there was no time to lose — it is a Friday and he needs to get to the mosque for midday prayers.
En route, he stopped off at home to swap his khaki school shirt, which has the cross emblazoned on the breast, for an ocher djellaba.
“I try to go to the mosque on Fridays and at the weekend,” said the 16-year-old Muslim, who has been enrolled in Catholic schools since primary education.
The arrangement might raise eyebrows in other countries, especially where religious friction is high.
Not so in Madagascar, an island nation whose traditions of religious tolerance are this week be on display for Pope Francis, who was to arrive yesterday for the second leg of a three-nation African tour.
At Beafara’s school, run by the Daughters of Mary, nearly one in eight students are Muslim.
At Saint Joseph high school, also in Antsiranana, Muslims account for more than one in five of the student body, whereas they account for less than 10 percent of Madagascar’s overall population.
As in other poor countries, Catholic education is prized by many families, who cite discipline, quality teaching and access to a social network as among its prime advantages.
In 2017, students at Catholic schools in Madagascar notched up a 63 percent success rate for the baccalaureat — the all-important school-leaving exam, which is modeled on the famous French bac.
In contrast, only 38 percent of students succeeded in the baccalaureat at state schools.
About 11 percent of all students are enrolled in Catholic schools in Madagascar.
Parents of Muslim children told reporters that they were unbothered by the religious component of education in Catholic schools, which includes a commitment by students to learn the Christian catechism and follow classes in Christian morality entitled “Education about life and love.”
“There are so many common areas between Islam and Catholicism,” Beafara said.
“Whether you are a Catholic or Muslim, we all pray to the same God,” said his father, Leonce Beafara, a former civil servant who grew up in a Christian household, but married a Muslim.
Mixed backgrounds such as there’s are common in northern Madagascar, which has the largest concentrations of Muslims in the country.
The success comes with a price — school fees go up to 60,000 ariary (US$16.03) per month per child, which can be a heavy burden in a country where two-thirds of people survive on less than US$2 per day.
State education is free.
By 1:30pm, classes at St John’s resumed — time for religious lessons.
Michael greeted his friends with a hearty Muslim salutation: As-salaam alaikum (peace be unto you).
He had enough time to get back into his school blouse with the cross on it — only Catholic symbols are permitted in the school. At the entrance there is a statue of the Virgin Mary and there are crucifixes in every classroom.
Many students said they were surprised that religious cohabitation should even be considered an issue.
“It’s completely normal,” 18-year-old Izad Assouman said.
“We are equal, we respect each other,” said Michael Beafara, who has permission to take time out of school during Ramadan for prayer at the mosque.
The students said that they approved a decision by Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina to name Eid al-Fitr — the end of Ramadan — as a public holiday, alongside Christian holidays.
“Muslim pals invite me sometimes to come over for the end of Ramadan,” said Frederic Robinson, a Catholic student.
Sister Marie Theodosie, the bookkeeper at St John’s, said that peaceful coexistence is rooted in the region’s traditions and similar lifestyles.
Many families eschew pork and women of both religions favor long, conservative gowns, she said.
The school’s youthful computer science teacher, Soafa Jaoriky, is Muslim, but said with a little laugh that she knows the Catholic prayers.
“When I was I child, I forced my [Muslim] mother to learn them so that she could teach them to me,” she said.
Facilitating enrollment by Muslims, Catholic schools in Antsiranana do not request a certificate of baptism from new students — unlike many schools in the capital, Antananarivo, where Muslim students are less numerous.
Tolerance and cohabitation are one thing, but religious conversions are rare, said Father Gidlin Bezamany, who is in charge of the Catholic schools in Antsiranana.
Catholic schools “are not there for proselytizing,” he said.
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