Christianity didn’t arrive until 1818””a bicentennial is imminent””but the first beÂlievers were very determined, and took seriously their pledge to resist apostasy. Their efforts brought them into sharp conflict with the equally motivated pagan queen Ranavalona I, whom early mission histories recall as a diabolical persecutor, a female combination of Nero and Caligula. Catholics speak of her rule as “the time when the land was dark.”
You get a sense of the country’s ChrisÂtian origins in the capital city Antananarivo (in popular usage, Tana), where no fewer than four cathedrals commemorate early martyrs. One of these, Andohalo, stands on an intimidating cliff, which in the mid-19th century was the site from which stubborn believers were thrown to their deaths.
Persecution faded after RaÂnavalona’s death in 1861, leaving a small church imÂmensely strengthened by so many reÂcent stories of martyrdom. Some of RanavaÂloÂna’s successors required ChrisÂÂtian participation quite as fiercely as the old queen had prohibited it. Since then, Christianity has grown by means familiar throughout sub-Saharan Africa.