Port-Au-Prince, Haiti - Hundreds of Voodoo practitioners chanted, prayed and pounded drums Sunday to honor earthquake victims in an unusually public ceremony for a religion most often celebrated in private homes.
The white-clad Voodooists, many with black sashes around their arms, walked under the scorching Caribbean sun from a downtown plaza to the shoreline, where they asked for the spirits of the dead to be cleansed in the ocean and sent on their way to reincarnation.
"Without us, there is no Haiti," said Voodoo priest Jean Claude Bazil, claiming his religion as the country's true path. "We have to pull ourselves together to save Haiti."
The Jan. 12 earthquake, which killed a government-estimated 230,000 people, roused tensions among Haiti's religions as some of the outpouring of aid has been funneled through Christian groups. A ceremony in a seaside slum last month was disrupted by angry crowds that threw rocks at Voodoo practitioners.
Organizers of Sunday's memorial chose a location amid the rubble of the shattered city center and promoted the event with radio advertisements in an effort to increase acceptance of Voodoo, which was sanctioned as an official religion in 2003 by the Haitian government. Haitian National Police kept a close watch from pickup trucks, but there was no violence - only prayers.
"Voodoo is not a secret society," said Max Beauvoir, a Voodoo priest who wore a feathered cap and a string of brightly colored beads as he presided over the ceremony at the United Nations park.
Still, the crowd of a few hundred people filled only a small patch of the park, nowhere near the size of the masses that turned out for Christian memorials during three days of official mourning in February.
Voodoo, a blend of Christian tenets and African religions fused by slaves, is practiced across the nation of roughly 9 million people. Many Haitians consider themselves followers of both Voodoo and Christianity.
Voodoo followers believe in reincarnation, one God and a pantheon of spirits. Voodoo leaders say that although they do not believe in evil spirits, some followers pray for the spirits to do evil.
One Voodoo priest, Augustine Saint-Clou, said they were praying for all the earthquake victims although he does not believe other religions have shown the same consideration for Voodooists.
"This is the real religion for all Haitians," said Saint-Clou, who wore a skull pendant on a chain around his neck.