Aid, fear draw Voodoo followers to other religions in weeks after devastating earthquake

By Paisley Dodds, AP
Friday, February 12, 2010

Tension among Haiti’s religions grows after quake

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Christian and Voodoo leaders put aside their differences for a moment Friday, joining hands under a canopy of tropical trees as some earthquake survivors on crutches and in wheelchairs mourned the more than 200,000 Haitians killed by an earthquake one month ago.

The catastrophe has driven a wedge between Haiti’s religions as Christian groups make inroads among shaken Voodoo followers — some drawn by the steady flow of aid through evangelical missions and others frightened by a disaster they saw as a warning from God.

“People see rice being distributed in front of churches and those homeless now needing papers are being offered baptism certificates that can act as identity documents,” Voodoo priest Max Beauvoir told The Associated Press before speaking at Friday’s service. “The horrible thing though is that by rejecting Voodoo these people are rejecting their ancestors and history. Voodoo is the soul of the Haitian people. Without it, the people are lost.”

Beauvoir said it took weeks of negotiations to arrange his participation in Friday’s ceremony, and that some didn’t want Voodoo represented in Port-au-Prince on Friday’s national day of mourning.

Haitians gathered under the shade of mimosa and powderpuff trees and flooded the streets of the capital in prayer, climbing atop the rubble of destroyed churches and spilling into parks where they stretched their arms to the skies. Hymns reverberated throughout the shattered city.

President Rene Preval broke down in tears, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief as his wife tried to console him.

“The pain is too heavy — words cannot describe it,” Preval said in one of the first major public addresses he has made in weeks.

After the quake, evangelical U.S. broadcaster Pat Robertson said Haiti had been cursed after its slave founders made a “pact with the devil.” The White House called the remark “stupid” but some Haitians wonder if God may be angry for their close ties to the spirit world.

“The earthquake scared me,” said Veronique Malot, a 24-year-old who joined an evangelical church two weeks ago when she found herself living in one of the city’s many outdoor camps. “Voodoo has been in my family but the government isn’t helping us. The only people giving aid are the Christian churches.”

Christians have spearheaded international disaster relief in Haiti and the rest of the developing world for decades.

Baptists, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Mormons and other missionaries have flocked to Haiti in droves since the earthquake — feeding the homeless, treating the injured and preaching the Gospel in squalid camps where some 1 million people now live.

In many of the camps, trucks with loudspeakers blast evangelical music while missionaries talk to families under tarpaulin roofs.

The Rev. Florian Ganthier, of an evangelical church that was partially destroyed in the quake, said he knows of dozens of Voodoo followers who have converted in the last month.

“People who practice Voodoo are living in the shadows,” Ganthier said. “This earthquake was a sign to all those who do not accept Jesus Christ in their life.”

Voodoo, or Vodou as preferred by Haitians, evolved in the 17th century when the French brought slaves to Haiti from West Africa. Slaves forced to practice Catholicism remained loyal to their African spirits in secret by adopting Catholic saints to coincide with African spirits, and today many Haitians consider themselves followers of both religions.

Voodoo’s followers believe in reincarnation, one God and a pantheon of spirits. Voodoo leaders say that although they do not believe in evil spirits, some followers pray for the spirits to do evil.

In 1791, an escaped slave named Boukman gathered thousands of followers in the forests of northern Haiti, sacrificed a wild boar and pledged that with the spirits’ help, he would liberate his people and free Haiti. After 10 years of bloodshed, slavery ended and Haiti became the world’s first black republic, making Boukman a hero and giving special prominence to Voodoo.

Still, Voodoo worshippers have been persecuted. A church-led campaign in the 1940s led to the destruction of temples and sacred objects. Hollywood films sensationalizing Voodoo and legends of the undead pushed the practice further underground.

Voodoo became recognized as a formal religion in Haiti only in 1987, under a new constitution that recognizes the rights of all religions.

Many missionaries who have flocked to the country since the earthquake say their goals in Haiti are strictly humanitarian.

“We’re not here to practice our religion,” said Chris Hermensen, a Mormon nurse who came after the quake to help treat patients in several hospitals. “We tell people what are beliefs are but we treat everyone the same. We’re here to help right now.”

At Friday’s mourning ceremony, Preval urged support for the government despite multiplying protests over government failures to provide food and shelter to those left homeless by the quake. Some aid groups have also complained of government dithering over moving people to safe shelter in advance of the coming rains.

In a sign of a return to normality, officials announced that commercial passenger flights would resume at Haiti’s international airport on Feb. 19. American Airlines was accepting reservations online but said it would not make a definitive commitment to starting that day. Small commercial planes have been operating between neighboring Dominican Republic and Port-au-Prince’s small national airport.

Meanwhile, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a bipartisan delegation on a half-day visit to Port-au-Prince, meeting Preval and visiting aid distribution sites and medical facilities.

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