Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Haiti: Boukman, Aristide, Voodoo and the Church.

Date: Tuesday 26 August 2003
Subj: Haiti: Boukman, Aristide, Voodoo and the Church.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

Over the past decade there has been a marked rise in the use of religious nationalism as a political tool. Religious nationalism embodies a rejection of colonialism and the present trend towards the globalisation of culture (global Westernisation). So it is not uncommon these days for a political party or individual aiming to take power or struggling to hold on to power, to use to religious nationalism to gain popular support and dragnet the vote of the majority religion.

This has been the case with Hindu nationalism in India and Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. It was inevitable that eventually African Traditional Religions such as voodoo would be promoted politically in the same way. In this regard, Haiti (in the Caribbean) is most certainly the nation to watch.


As with all nationalism, some knowledge of history is crucial for understanding the present situation. "Hayti" (or mountainous land, as it was known by the original inhabitants, the Arawak Indians), was discovered by Christopher Columbus and named "Hispaniola"(Little Spain) in 1492. The Spanish colonised the island and under their rule the Arawak Indians were virtually annihilated. In 1697 the western portion of the island was ceded to France and named Haiti. (The eastern portion under Spanish rule became Saint-Domingue, now Dominican Republic.)

Haiti flourished under French rule and became invaluable as a resource for cocoa, cotton, sugar cane and coffee. By 1780, Haiti was one of the wealthiest regions in the world. The plantation system was however built upon the backs of vast numbers of slaves imported from West Africa.

Several consequences of this era provide the foundations for the present situation.
  • Firstly - the West African slaves brought with them the religious practices of voodoo.
  • Secondly - the French colonial masters treated the slaves with such undue harshness they created hatred amid an already resentful environment.
  • Thirdly - a class of "mulattos" (light skinned, sophisticated, Catholic, French-speaking Haitians) arose from the relations of the slave owners and the slaves. They were at odds with the dark-skinned, voodoo practising, Creole-speaking masses.
On 14 August 1791, a black slave and witch doctor named Boukman led the slaves in a voodoo ritual. They sacrificed a pig and drank its blood to form a pact with the devil, whereby they agreed to serve the spirits of the island for 200 years in exchange for freedom from the French. This became known as the "Boukman Contract". The slave rebellion commenced on 22 August 1791, and after 13 years of conflict, the slaves won their independence. On 1 January 1804 they declared Haiti the world's first independent black republic. (Link 1)

Since independence, Haiti has been in a continual state of political struggle and wracked with poverty.


Haiti's current president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is a former Catholic priest who gained notoriety with the Catholic Church and popularity in Haiti in the late 1980s on account of his liberation theology.

Aristide was elected president in 1990, ousted in a coup in 1991, and re-elected as president in Nov 2000 (results disputed). He survived coup attempts in July and December 2001. November 2002 was marked by unrest and anti-government protests. The next elections are scheduled for later this year.

In light of the historic and political facts it is therefore very interesting that in April 2003, President Aristide made voodoo an official religion in Haiti (link 2) declaring, "voodoo is an essential part of national identity." (Link 3)

Haiti is reckoned as being 95% Christian (predominantly Catholic), but according to Catholic missionary John Hoet, Haitians "are 100% voodoo". (Link 4)

It is primarily the growing evangelical Christian Church in Haiti that is opposed to voodoo, actively working to bring people out of it and to help them find reconciliation with God and peace and strength through the Holy Spirit. (Link 5)

Christian Aid's 'Mission Insider' reported on 14 August 2003, "While some witch doctors want to renew the 200-year commitment to Voodoo, Christians are spear-heading a year-long prayer movement to 'take Haiti back from Satan', according to the HAVIDEC website. HAVIDEC (from the Creole for Haiti Vision for the Third Century) is 'a concerted effort of all the major churches, denominations, and Protestant organizations in Haiti to bring about a spiritual deliverance for Haiti on the occasion of the celebration of our country's 200 years of independence (1 January 2004)'."


Several analysts have already surmised that Aristide's official recognition of voodoo is a political move to shore up popular support before the elections.

Los Angeles Times reporter Carol J. Williams found evidence to support that theory when she interviewed people in Haiti recently. (Link 3)

"Aristide is the only president in our history who has done something for us," said one voodoo practitioner. "We will stay with him forever and perform every ceremony necessary to keep him in power. We will not negotiate with any country on this, no matter how much pressure they put on us. We will eat rocks if we have to, as long as we can keep him in power."

Williams says, "Legitimising voodoo has strengthened Aristide's image as a man of the people and probably has enhanced popular support for the rumoured bid by the former Roman Catholic priest to amend the constitution so he can seek a now-prohibited third term as president.

"By bestowing legitimacy on the African-origin religion, Aristide, the beleaguered president of this poorest of Western countries, has signalled to his people that they should be proud of their African heritage, not forced to subvert it under the religious practices of the European Christians who once repressed them."

There is concern that the promotion of voodoo as "an essential part of national identity", could signal danger for evangelical Christians. Williams quotes one Haitian as saying, "Voodoo has done everything for Haiti. It gave us our independence, while the imported religions held us by the throat."

Christian Aid reported recently (14 August), "One ministry spokesman in northern Haiti said five of its pastors had been murdered recently. He blamed it on the strong influence of Voodoo in the area. No other details were available." This report, from a highly trusted and reliable source, is being further investigated.

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) New Beginnings 2004. Youth With A Mission

2) "Haiti makes voodoo official" BBC 30 April 2003

3) "Official recognition of voodoo in Haiti stirs enthusiasm,
concern." By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, 6 Aug 2003

4) "Voodoo's spell over Haiti" By Nick Caistor
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti 4 Aug 2003

5) "Voodoo pilgrimages draw thousands" 26 July 2003
By Michael Norton, from Plaine du Nord, Haiti (AP)

Friday, August 15, 2003

Sri Lanka: no right to 'propagate religion'

Date: Friday 15 August 2003
Subj: Sri Lanka: The Church's Darkest Hour
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

The situation for Christians in Sri Lanka is deteriorating rapidly. Only around one percent of Sri Lankans are evangelical Protestant Christian. The evangelical Church has grown in the past two decades. This is virtually exclusively due to the tireless ministry of indigenous Sri Lankan church planters and local personal witness.

The report below was prepared by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. It is deeply disturbing. Sri Lanka's Supreme Court has ruled that although it is permissible under Article 10 and 14(1)e of the Constitution for a person to manifest, observe and practice one's religion, that does NOT guarantee a fundamental right to propagate religion.

The Supreme Court also ruled that as Buddhism is the State religion, it is unconstitutional for Christian organizations that propose to carry out proselytization of the Christian faith to be able to be incorporated under an Act of Parliament. The Court further concluded that clauses 3 (right to observe and practise a religion) and 5 (right to hold property) of Sri Lanka's Incorporation Bill are unconstitutional, because (it reasoned) if a Christian organisation owns property, that might induce others to convert, thus violating their freedom of religion.

On top of all this, the progression of Sri Lanka's Anti-Conversion Bill (modelled on the Anti-Conversion Ordinance of Tamil Nadu, India) appears to be gaining momentum.

- EK

- from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka

Recent developments and trends affecting Religious Freedom:

1) Anti-Conversion Law - a new twist

The past two weeks have revealed a new development in the proposed Anti-Conversion Bill issue. Minister W.J.M. Lokubandara who is the Minister of Buddhism and Legal Reform has now taken up the cause and has formally announced on the electronic media that he will be presenting the anti-conversion Bill. As a senior Minister of the Cabinet and a stalwart of the governing party, Minister Lokubandara wields considerable power and influence.

Initially, it was Minister of Hindu Cultural Affairs Mr. Maheswaran, who championed the cause for an anti-conversion Bill, after his return from a visit to the Indian State of Tamil Nadu in November 2002. By July 2003, the draft legislation, modelled on the Tamil Nadu Bill was sent to the Attorney General's office (in keeping with procedure) prior to being presented in Parliament.

It is unclear whether Minister Lokubandara will be presenting Minister Maheswaran's draft or a different draft of the Bill.

2) Right of Incorporation and Constitutional Guarantees.

Within the past two years, three petitions have come up before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka challenging the right of Christian ministries to be incorporated under an Act of Parliament. The third and latest judgment was delivered by the Supreme Court last week against the 'Provincial of the Teaching Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of St. Francis in Menzingen of Sri Lanka' - which is a Catholic Ministry.

(According to a news report in the Sunday Times newspaper on 10th August 2003) The Supreme Court, interpreting Article 10 and 14(1)e of the Constitution, ruled that although it was permissible under our Constitution for a person to manifest, observe and practice ones religion, it does not guarantee a fundamental right to propagate religion.

Article 9 of the Constitution guarantees Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly, casts a duty upon the State to protect and foster Buddhism. The Supreme Court held that the purpose of the ministry in question "the spread of knowledge of the Catholic religion and to impart religious, educational and vocational training to youth" (clause 3) is inconsistent with Article 9 of the Constitution; and therefore denied the right of incorporation. The object of clause 3 was seen as a threat to the very existence of Buddhism.

They further held that clause 3 and 5 in the incorporation Bill are unconstitutional. Clause 5 deals with the right of holding and receiving property both movable and immovable and or the power of disposing of such property. The court stated that this clause when combined with the objective of observance and practice of a religion or belief (clause 3), would necessarily result in imposing upon people who are defenceless, vulnerable or in need, improper pressure and inducement to adopt a religion or belief. This they stated, would violate Article 10 of the Constitution which guarantees the freedom of adopting a religion or belief.

The 3 judge bench consisted of Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, Justice H.S. Yapa and Justice Nihal Jayasinghe.

Minister Lokubandara, calling a press conference a day after the judgment was announced in Parliament, stated "this is a clear judgment. It will give us the legal backing to stop this kind of (*unethical conversion) activity carried out in the name of religion".

* The constant accusation levelled against the evangelical churches is 'unethical conversion'. So much so that the words 'unethical conversion' has become synonymous with 'conversion'. The accusation is that conversion is carried out by duping the poor to embrace a foreign religion by tempting them with material benefits and money.

The judgment and interpretation of Articles 9, 10 and 14 (1) (e) as applied by the learned justices in this case, form a dangerous precedent of law for all lower courts.

In the previous two judgments against 'Sahanaye Doratuwa' ministry in 2002 and 'New Harvest Wine Ministries' in January 2003, the Chief Justice ruled that incorporation of a Christian organization that proposes to carry out proselytization of the Christian faith is unconstitutional.

The collective effect of all the above developments predict a very dark time ahead for the Church in Sri Lanka. The Supreme Court decisions will definitely be a strong platform for launching the anti-conversion Bill.