Voodoo practitioners shrug off blame for Haitian quake

Port au Prince, Haiti - "Kaaaa! Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka," she screams and stutters, her right arm bent in front of her.

Around her, the other Voodoo worshippers look on, unsurprised but expectant as their ceremony reaches its climactic mid-point. Someone ties a red cloth to her arm, which stops shaking.

In their eyes, she is possessed by a spirit of the dead - one of the 220,000 estimated to have perished in Haiti's January quake perhaps - and is thus, in a way, blessed.

When she picks up a rusty knife and swings clockwise around the room, gulping from a bottle of cherry-flavored alcohol, they do not draw away.

Instead they embrace her, even kiss her. And in that way they are blessed, too.

But for all the fervor and favor being shared in this back-alley corner of Cite Soleil, a Port-au-Prince slum that was badly smashed in the quake, the practitioners of Voodoo are feeling under seige.

Their cult, a form of west African polytheism that came to Haiti with the slave trade, is being blamed by some followers of the rapidly growing Christian denominations - evangelicals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists - as the cause of God's anger in smiting their country.

"They say we're the ones who caused the earthquake. But we know ourselves that we didn't cause the quake, because it was a natural catastrophe," said Willer Jassaint, one of the priests, or houngans, leading the Voodoo ceremony.

Matters came to a head February 23, when a group of Protestant Evangelicals attacked a Cite Soleil Voodoo ceremony with a hail of rocks.

Max Beauvoir, supreme head of Haitian Voodoo, said two days afterwards that a repeat of the violence would lead to "open war," with his followers told to meet aggression with aggression.

So far, that has not happened.

But in the streets and packed churches of Haiti's capital, muted animosity is felt towards the Voodoo worshippers.

Some of its stems from the fact that Voodoo is more assiduously followed by the poorest strata of Haiti's population - a stigmatised majority in the poorest country in the Americas.

Some of it also is explained by the lingering fear generated by the use of Voodoo by Haiti's most notorious dictators, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, to repress the populace during their rule from the 1950s to mid 1980s.

Today, Voodoo remains an official state religion, and it is estimated more than half of Haiti's population practises at least elements of it, sometimes with Catholicism.

"I don't like them," said one 26-year-old Haitian women who declared herself a Protestant, as she stepped through a chaotic marketplace.

A vendor nearby said, though, that he could not see how Vodouisants, as they are called, could be held responsible for the nation's disaster.

"It's not Voodoo that caused the earthquake," he said.

In front of one church overflowing during an hours-long Sunday service, several Christian Haitians said they agreed that blaming Voodoo for Haiti's ills was as akin to superstition as Voodoo itself.

Nevertheless, one woman dressed in her best church-going clothes, Vilherne Petitfrere, said the quake had stirred the faithful to greater devotion.

"When you're afraid, you pray to God, that's just nature. You don't go to anyone else except God. That's why the church has been full these past days," she said.

Back in the Voodoo shed, as the chanting and dancing and rum-fuelled flames faded, the houngans somberly laid out their plans for bigger, more public ceremonies in the days to come.

They owe the spirits of the dead that release, they say - and they owe themselves that show of defiance.

"We have to maintain our religion now... Because our religion is our soul, it's part of us," Jassaint said.