Christians in Haiti Face Increasing Risk

Monday, October 4, 2004

Murder of prominent radio evangelist exposes growing anarchy.

by Deann Alford

AUSTIN, Texas, October 4, 2004 (Compass) -- As Haiti suffers through a series of national disasters, spokesmen for the Christian community in the island nation say believers are facing even greater risk.

More than 1,500 people died in floodwaters from Tropical Storm Jeanne. This comes after the United Nations was obliged to station a peacekeeping force on the island to quell political violence following the February ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Haitians, however, find little peace in Haiti. Rampant delinquency has turned the island into a nation under siege by criminal gangs. The crime wave that has escalated since Aristide’s departure claimed one of the island’s most prominent Christians earlier this month.

Robbery was the apparent motive for the September 13 murder of Jean-Moles Lovinksky Bertomieux, 43, a Haitian Baptist minister who hosted a Christian radio program. Bertomieux was on his way to work at Port-au-Prince’s Radio Caraibes to broadcast his popular “Morning Manna” program. Police have arrested three men in connection with the shooting.

Tens of thousands of people attended Bertomieux’s funeral on September 19 at an amphitheater near the National Palace. “He was greatly appreciated by Haitians, both evangelicals and non-evangelicals,” said Boxley Boggs, international director for the UFM International mission.

According to news reports, many of those who attended Bertomieux’s funeral were there to call attention to Haiti’s rising crime wave and to urge the government to take action.

“[Crime] is something they don’t have control over in Haiti,” said Julio Volcy, a Haitian pastor living in the United States. “Everybody in the church is affected, including evangelicals because we’re part of society.”

“You’re dealing with spiritual warfare, and the devil will do anything to stop you,” Volcy said. “You have to be on your knees all the time and constantly in the word of God.”

Enoc Lucien, church-planter and pastor of Cap Haitien Evangelical Free Church, said that the lack of rule of law can lead to increased attacks against Christians.

“That could happen where somebody might use chaos as a platform to hurt Christians,” Lucien said. “Sometimes we have people who get saved but their families want to hurt them or kick them out of their family.”

Paul Shingledecker, a missionary with World Gospel Mission who served in Haiti 23 years before leaving in December, said that roving armed gangs have besieged Haiti. “I know of a number of people who have been robbed, including missionaries, in the past several weeks,” said Shingledecker, who returned to Haiti in mid September as a short-term consultant at Christian station Radio Lumiere, or Light Radio.

“It affects everybody in Haiti. Anybody is at risk, and it certainly wouldn’t be just evangelicals. There are a lot of weapons out there.”

“Sometimes it gets scary,” Lucien said. “It’s unpredictable, it’s frustrating, but that’s life in Haiti.

Lucien estimates he was mugged a dozen times in 2003, most often at gunpoint. He recalled one week when he was attacked three times. Miraculously, he managed to escape each assault.

Reporting thefts to authorities is futile. “In Haiti, if you’re not killed, it isn’t a crime,” Lucien said. According to him, stealing has never been considered a felony. A thief is simply “somebody trying to find a way to survive,” he said.

That’s affected his ministry. He used to hold two to three evening services a week in one church he planted, but canceled them because he can no longer travel to the area at night.

Haiti holds the unenviable record of being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Annual per capita income in the country of 8.2 million people is $310.

Boggs, who lived in Haiti for 14 years during his missionary career, joins many other Haiti-watchers who believe the country’s woes and fatalistic world view stem from its spiritual darkness.

“The root underlying cause is voodooism. Spiritism is very real and very powerful, and one doesn’t have to live in Haiti very long to notice that. It’s very fatalistic.

“People think, ‘I have no control over my life.’ The average Haitian always thinks about how to placate these spirits by sacrifices.”

Some observers believe Haiti’s woes can be traced to a slave revolt in 1791, during which rebels solicited assistance against their French overlords by dedicating the country to voodoo spirits.

Witch doctors are often the most respected people in Haitian villages because their drums have the power to conjure spirits. Many Haitians – and many foreigners familiar with Haiti – view voodoo as the country’s “cultural heritage.”

According to Operation World, 22 percent of Haiti is evangelical. Operation World notes that evangelicals openly stand against voodooism. As a result, Christians often face mystical persecution in the form of hexes and spells.

Despite the recent upswing in violent crime, Boggs says, gangs and other social problems besetting Haiti were worse under Aristide, including the persecution of Christians.

Despite the risks, Lucien said that people are responding to the gospel. He cited a church he planted in August in a town 20 miles south of Cap Haitien. By late September, 200 people were attending.

“As we are preaching the gospel, people are coming to Christ and people are changing,” he said.