Is Haiti Facing a Voodoo-Christian Showdown?

Monday, August 18, 2003

Tensions Could Increase after Voodoo Declared an Official Religion
by David Miller

Miami (Compass - August 18, 2003) -- In late April, Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, declared voodoo an officially recognized religion. The decision means, among other things, that marriage ceremonies conducted by voodoo priests now have equal standing with Catholic ones.

According to a BBC report, many people in the country welcome the move. Voodoo, an African folk religion that venerates a mixture of gods and goddesses and Catholic saints, is an integral part of Haitian life, they say, practiced in Haiti since the late 18th century. A common maxim asserts that Haitians are 70 percent Catholic, 30 percent Protestant and 100 percent voodoo.

“We’ve always been the majority religion in Haiti -- it’s never been illegal to be a voodooisant,” Mambu Racine Sumbu, an American voodoo priestess who has been practicing in Haiti for 15 years, told the BBC World Service on April 30. “What President Aristide has done for us, for which we are very thankful, is to facilitate us in obtaining the status that we need to perform legally-binding religious ceremonies.”

But some Haitians -- particularly evangelical Christians -- believe official recognition of voodoo threatens their freedom of worship and even their personal safety. They say a showdown between voodoo and Christianity is imminent.

“The government said they are going to turn the country entirely to voodoo. The Christians say we are going to turn the country totally to the Lord Jesus Christ,” Jean Berthony Paul, founder of Mission Evangelique du Nord D’Haiti, told Compass.

“I ask everyone I meet to read the 18th chapter of I Kings to see what happened between the prophet Elijah and the Baal prophets. The same thing will happen here.”

Paul has worked in Cap-Haitien, the self-proclaimed “voodoo capital of the world,” since 1970, developing churches, schools, a medical clinic and media ministries. In August 1998, a showdown with voodoo leaders over an annual open-air evangelistic crusade landed Paul and two associates in jail.

When local officials learned of plans for the annual meeting, they ordered organizers to cancel the event.

“They said, ‘Last year you made your crusade, you cast away all our spirits. This year, if you do the crusade, we will kill you,’” Paul recounted.

The evangelicals went ahead with the crusade and officials arrested Paul and two other pastors, Jeane Joel and Gregory Joseph.

“They thought they were going to put us in jail for life,” said Paul, pointing out ominously that few prisoners survive Haitian jails. However, Christians around the country mounted massive protests against the arrests, forcing officials to release the pastors after three days.

Since then, Paul says he has received numerous death threats; family and colleagues have urged him to flee the country. “But when they say I must leave Haiti, I cannot. I have a mandate to set Haiti free from the voodoo,” he said.

Not all Christian ministers in Haiti believe Aristide’s presidential backing of voodoo will raise tensions between adherents of the African folk religion and evangelical Christians.

“I don’t really see much change happening because of it,” said a North American missionary who has worked in Port–au-Prince for the past 17 years. “Since 1986, we’ve heard over and over again the terrible thing that’s going to happen to the evangelical church because such-and-such is a leader and he doesn’t want the evangelical church to come out ahead. I haven’t ever seen that happen.

“I don’t see religion as a battle,” he added. “I think we need to win hearts, one at a time, and disciple. In fact, the evangelical church has been growing through this.”

All Christian ministers agree on that last point. Evangelicals currently account for 40 to 45 percent of the Haitian population, according to church spokesmen. They believe the evangelical church in Haiti will continue to grow at a rapid pace, official voodoo notwithstanding.

“There have been some difficulties, some confrontations that could, perhaps, affect the church from this point on,” a pastor from the Dominican Republic who makes frequent visits to Haiti told Compass.

“But the servants of God have not been hindered by that. Instead, they have looked to Christ, who is the only source and stronghold that helps us go forward.”