By Agence France-Presse
Thousands of people were gathering before dawn Sunday in the Madagascar capital Antananarivo, braving a cold windy morning to hear Pope Francis say mass on the second leg of his three-nation African tour.
In Andravoahangy church, pastor Jean-Yves Ravoajanahary briefed 5,000 people on the two-hour trek to Soamandrakizay stadium, where the mass will take place.
“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 told AFP.
One by one the groups started the journey, huddled together 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, told AFP he left even earlier, at 2:00 am, for fear “of not finding space”.
The mass was due to begin at 10:00 am (0700 GMT). Organizers expect around one million attendees.
Many had already set up tents on the outskirts of the city on Friday, armed with posters of the Argentine pontiff.
Prospere Ralitason, a 70-year-old farmworker, 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.
The last pope to visit Madagascar was John Paul II 30 years ago.
‘Hope for change’
Crowds gathered on Saturday to welcome the pope as he made his way to Soamandrakizay in his popemobile.
Thousands of young people — mainly scouts — gathered for a vigil there, 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 less than two dollars a day.
More than half of its young people are out of work, even if many have good qualifications.
Francis visited Mozambique earlier in the week. He is also due to travel to the island of Mauritius.