How gang violence in Haiti is impinging on religious freedom
But it could not withstand the gang violence that now rules this Caribbean nation.
Martissant, a neighborhood on the southwestern edge of Port-au-Prince, has for years been a notorious battleground for warring armed groups. In 2021, gang members invaded the temple, pillaged its artifacts and burned it to the ground.
“This space was so important to me,” Erol Josué, a houngan, or Vodou priest, told The Washington Post. “The gang members lost their humanity. Nothing is important to them anymore. … The sacred spaces are no longer important.”
As gangs maraud through Haiti’s cities mostly unchecked, they are now targeting groups that had once been spared such violence — a sign of how the new level of lawlessness here is shattering long-standing taboos.
“What we are observing today in terms of attacks on religious is unprecedented,” said Laënnec Hurbon, a Haitian sociologist who studies religion in the Caribbean. “There’s a desacralization of almost everything in Haiti. Everything that could bind the society … is nonexistent.”
The violence has shuttered peristyles, churches and mosques, making it difficult for people to worship freely. The victims span different faith groups: an Italian missionary nun who cared for poor children was killed last year. So was a Vodou priest. Seventeen American and Canadian missionaries were kidnapped in October 2021. A Catholic priest was taken hostage in February. Several dozen worshipers were attacked last month after a Vodou ceremony near Canaan, a shantytown controlled by gangs.
Parishioners and priests have been kidnapped from their churches during Mass.
Haiti’s religious sector is now “directly” targeted in the security crisis, according to the Port-au-Prince-based Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights. Initially, most of the victims were Christians, but Vodouists have increasingly been targeted. Roughly 40 have been killed by gangs since 2022, the research group said.
At least 10 peristyles have been attacked since 2021, according to Saint-Clou Augustin, a houngan. Insecurity has rendered more than 20 Catholic parishes in the capital “dysfunctional,” according to the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, forcing priests to move their services online.
“The Church is doing its best to accompany the Haitian people,” the archdiocese said in April, “and urges leaders and politicians to change their bearings to alleviate the weight of the suffering and misery of the Haitian people.”
Gangs are not new to Haiti. But they’ve grown in power since the still-unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021, slaughtering civilians, extorting businesses and blocking humanitarian aid in a country that the United Nations has warned is teetering on the brink of famine.
With little help from underequipped police or an unelected and unloved government, Haitian civilians have begun to form vigilante brigades, killing suspected gang members in their neighborhoods themselves — a development that has drawn both popular support and concern.
In the absence of strong democratic institutions, faith communities have provided much-needed aid and education to the general population. The great majority of primary and secondary school students in 2022 were enrolled in private schools, which are typically run by religious groups, the U.S. State Department reported.
“In this community, religion is really important,” said Mickaël Payet, an emergency care delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC works with religious leaders to mobilize aid and transport victims of gang violence to hospitals, he said, because “they are well accepted.”
But in recent years, no one here has been immune from the carnage. Violence against religious groups isn’t rooted in discrimination, analysts and religious leaders themselves say, but by a belief that they are well-funded and can pay exorbitant ransoms to recover victims of kidnapping.
Vodou, which is deeply stitched into the fabric of Haiti, faces unique challenges.
The religion has roots in the faith traditions of the enslaved Africans, who were brought to the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, and the Roman Catholicism of the French and Spanish colonists and missionaries.
Many Haitians credit a Vodou ceremony at the wooded area of Bois Caïman as a pivotal gathering in the Haitian Revolution, in which the Africans cast off their French enslavers and founded the world’s first Black republic.
In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest, issued an executive decree recognizing Vodou as a “religion in its own right” — and “an essential element of national identity.”
But the faith, which centers on devotion to lwa, or spirits, has long been misunderstood and stigmatized, first by the French enslavers, later by Americans during the 19-year U.S. occupation and, today, members of the Haitian political and religious elite.
After the substandard sanitary practices of U.N. peacekeepers introduced cholera to Haiti in 2010, seeding an epidemic that killed almost 10,000 people, some blamed Vodou. Mobs lynched houngan, mostly with impunity.
Now, in yet another time of crisis, religious leaders and analysts say some are blaming Vodou for Haiti’s insecurity. Some gang members claim Vodou has made them invulnerable to bullets.
“As a result, many Vodouists suffered violence and threats of violence during the year,” the State Department said in a 2022 report on religious freedom, “both from gangs and non-gang members who thought Vodouists supported gangs, affecting all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.”
Josué, the Martissant houngan, is also a musician who blends Vodou sounds with contemporary ones. He was singing an homage to Moïse after the assassination when he learned his peristyle had been destroyed. He continued to sing, he said, but struggled to get the words out.
Josué was raised by his grandmother in the sprawling Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour, where the melody of merchants selling their wares was the soundtrack of his childhood. He later moved in with his mother and her partner, a houngan who taught him about Vodou.
After the peristyle was destroyed, Josué said he lost weight and was sick with worry.
“It’s an enormous loss for the country,” he said. “The peristyle with its sacred objects tells the story of the country. They are the museum of the people in a country where the state does not build museums.”
He detests how gang members have hijacked and co-opted the religion, fueling its further stigmatization.
“The gangs have no respect for the sacred,” he said.
Augustin, who heads the Royaume of Vodou, an organization representing 3.9 million members, said gangs descended on his vehicle in August 2021 as he left a Vodou ceremony in Artibonite attended by 50,000 people. They forced him out of the vehicle and stole it, he said.
He has little hope there will be justice.
“The state cannot protect itself,” he said, “so it cannot protect us.”