Haiti's blessing for voodoo

GRESSIER, Haiti -- In a dark, airless temple decorated with paper flags and moldering food, voodoo "houngan" Adnor Adely takes on the look of one possessed.

His eyes shut tight. His shoulders hunch. His hands leap up as if to ward off danger, and his slim body begins to quiver.

It is not only the rapture of the spirit world that energizes Adely. He is excited by the recent government decree giving the centuries-old practice of voodoo the status of an officially recognized religion. Voodoo priests -- houngans -- like him soon will be authorized to perform any civil service a Roman Catholic priest can, officiating at births, marriages and funerals.

"Voodoo has done everything for Haiti. It gave us our independence, while the imported religions held us by the throat," says Adely, wearing a T-shirt bearing the portrait of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a baseball cap bequeathed by Christian missionaries from Southern Methodist University.

"We owe this to Aristide. He can be considered the president of voodoo," Adely continues, growing more insistent and animated with each adoring word.

"Aristide is the only president in our history who has done something for us. We will stay with him forever and perform every ceremony necessary to keep him in power. ... We will eat rocks if we have to, as long as we can keep him in power."

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

Haiti is believed to be the first country to accord voodoo the same status as more structured religions. Voodoo is deeply intertwined in the two strands that have shaped Haiti: African slavery and French Christian colonization.

Voodoo followers, thought to include about 80 percent of Haiti's 8.1 million people, have been able to throw off the secrecy and shackles since Aristide's proclamation two months ago that as an ancestral legacy, "voodoo is an essential part of national identity."

By bestowing legitimacy on the African-origin religion, which is embraced by the vast majority of Haitians, Aristide, the beleaguered president of this poorest of Western countries has signaled 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.

Bestowing of official sanction has also had positive social consequences, according to some outside of political circles. A recent international development conference on combating the spread of AIDS included delegates from the emerging voodoo community, which has a more open and tolerant view of homosexuality than does the Haitian public at large.

"Voodoo is the only environment in which Haitian gays feel accepted and free to talk about issues," says Laurence Magloire, who last year produced a documentary film on voodoo and its embrace of sexual outcasts. "We live in a country where homosexuality is taboo."

The religion, which is closely entwined with nature, also offers some hope of halting the rapacious harvesting of trees for making charcoal -- a desperate means of making a meager living that has shorn Haiti of most of its forests.

"If the country adhered to voodoo principles, we wouldn't have the crisis we are now facing," says Evonie Auguste, a mambo from the Carrefour suburb of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. "For us, trees are living things that God put here to be respected. Nature is the place where the spirits live."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic.

Haiti's Catholic clergy has reacted with alarm at the moves to empower voodoo practitioners to conduct rituals with legal significance, especially baptisms, which the church contends are an exclusively Christian domain. The bishop of Port-au-Prince, Msgr. Joseph Lafontant, issued a statement shortly after the government decree deeming the status accorded voodoo "excessive" and its application to civil ceremonies "an obvious mistake."

The Roman Catholic Church has for years been losing its once omnipotent hold over Haitians in the face of Protestant and other missionaries who flood Haiti to proselytize while conducting development work. None of the more established churches regard voodoo as a legitimate religion, but they have been more circumspect in their opposition since the constitutional recognition accorded 16 years ago.