Contending faiths shape reactions to catastrophe

Tue, Jan 26, 2010, 00:00

THE VOICES rise up in the middle of the night, from the darkened streets and public parks that are now home to more than a million Haitians. “ Chanter, c’est prier deux fois,” Haitians say.

Singing is like praying twice. A lone voice launches a hymn. Others join in. I have heard them every night, and it’s the same in other parts of the city. The prayers, in Creole, often mixed with what sound like voodoo chants, continue for an hour or two, then subside before dawn.

Faith and mysticism have shaped Haitians’ response to the cataclysm of January 12th. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called it an event of biblical proportions. I’ve heard Haitians evoke Noah and the flood, Jonah and the whale, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Intellectual, French-educated Haitians, including Bishop Pierre Dumas, object to the popular wisdom that portrays the catastrophe as divine retribution. That’s an Old Testament interpretation, Bishop Dumas told me: the Christ of the Gospel does not judge and punish; he suffers with people.

The televangelist Pat Robertson created a scandal in the US by saying God punished Haiti for its centuries-old pact with the devil. Shocking and politically incorrect as it is, Robertson’s belief is shared by some Haitians.

In 1791, at the start of the slave rebellion against the French, a voodoo houngan(priest) called Boukman held a ritual ceremony where worshippers drank the warm blood of a sacrificed black pig and prayed to their African gods to free them.

The French practised a particularly virulent form of slavery in Haiti, where the average life expectancy was seven years after arrival in the colony. Because the stock of slaves was continuously replenished from Africa, Haitians remained closer to their original culture and religion than slaves elsewhere in the Americas.

Haiti’s early leaders knew first-hand the rallying power of voodoo drums and ceremonies, and tried to suppress the religion. Faustin Soulouque, the fourth illiterate black general to rule the country, claimed the Virgin Mary told him he should be emperor, was crowned with gilded cardboard, then openly embraced voodoo in the mid 19th century. The Catholic Church turned its back on Haiti from independence in 1804 until 1860, thus allowing voodoo to become deeply entrenched.

Haiti’s modern history has seen a constant struggle between Christianity and the African religion, with its houngans, mambos (priestesses) and peristyles(chapels). The American military tried to stamp out voodoo during its 1915-1934 occupation of the island.

François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, whose family terrorised the island from 1957 until 1986, concluded a Boukman-style pact with the loas(evil spirits), bringing them en masse from the cave they were said to inhabit at Trou Foban to the presidential palace. No living human could overthrow Duvalier, Haitians believed, because he was protected by the loas.

Duvalier persecuted the church, expelling priests and bishops and even sending a hounganto perform a voodoo ceremony on the steps of Port-au-Prince’s now ruined cathedral. When his son Jean-Claude was overthrown, houngansand mamboswere tracked down and murdered, along with Duvalier’s infamous tontons macoutes.

In recent decades, Haitian Catholicism has also been challenged by evangelical missionaries. Catholic sources say 65 per cent of Haitians are practising Catholics, 35 per cent Evangelical Protestants. Though Christian leaders condemn voodoo, many Haitians practise both religions. French slaves resisted imposed Catholicism by attributing the identity of a loato each saint. When a Haitian sees an image of the Virgin Mary, he also sees the loaErsulie Dantord.

In a gesture of solidarity towards his Christian counterparts, Max Beauvoir, the French-educated head of the association of voodoo houngans, promised to give shelter to any priest or pastor displaced by the earthquake. They have not taken up the offer.

“When the earthquake started, I thought it was the end of the world,” Fr Fernand Pierre told parishioners at Altagrace Church in the Delmas neighbourhood on Sunday. “When I learned it was only Haiti, and not the whole world, I knew it was God’s will. God does with us as he pleases.”

Haitians are so terrified of aftershocks that many worshippers listened from outside the church building.

More Haitians survived than perished, Father Fernand noted. “Haiti will survive. The same God that protects the US, France and Britain, the rich and powerful countries of the world, also protects Haiti.”