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Haitian Church soldiers on in midst of gang violence; Pope asks prayer

Violence in Haiti


John Burger - published on 03/10/24

Priest cites resilience of the people in face of gang violence and uncertainty. Pope Francis asks for prayer through intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

In spite of an atmosphere of extreme danger and uncertainty, the Church in Haiti is providing pastoral care to a population that takes great risks to be together as the body of Christ.

“We are still working in areas that are very, very difficult,” said Fr. Victor Auguste, a Salesian missionary in Port-au-Prince. 

It is difficult for priests and people to move about, and Fr. Auguste said that he is never sure if he will be able to get to a church to celebrate Sunday Mass.

Pope Francis noted the dire situation in the country after praying the Sunday midday Angelus on March 10:

I follow with concern and sorrow the grave crisis affecting Haiti and the violent incidents that have occurred in recent days. I am close to the Church and to the dear Haitian people, who have been tested by much suffering for years. I invite you to pray, through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, for an end to all violence and for all to offer their contribution to foster peace and reconciliation in the country, with the renewed support of the International Community.

Haiti’s prime minister, Ariel Henry, has been unable to return to the island nation after a recent visit to Kenya, as gangs have closed the main international airport. Henry, who has been serving since the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, went to Kenya seeking help to control Haiti’s gangs.

Meanwhile, a police officer-turned gang leader named Jimmy Chérizier has led an effort to unify the gangs, which have taken increasing power over the past few years. Last weekend, they stormed Haitian prisons and released about 5,000 prisoners, presumably so that many would aid them in their hoped-for occupation of the presidential palace and national police academy.

Chérizier has threatened to lead the country into civil war if Henry does not resign.

Ripple effects

The violence has mostly been in the capital, though the ripple effects are felt far and wide. Gangs control major roads, impeding the shipment of goods and the free movement of people.

Fr. Auguste said that gangs are occupying some of the properties where the Salesians run various ministries. “Unfortunately, nothing can be done,” he said. “We are just in God’s hands.”

He said that ordinary people, many of whom are engaged in selling wares on the streets and in public markets, are unable to do so, as gun violence is prevalent. 

“Now in my area, we don’t have many problems, but we are afraid because we don’t know what can happen,” Fr. Auguste told Aleteia. Gangs are “running from place to place, setting fires.” Gunfire is regularly heard in his area.

He said that in some areas in the capital, people are lacking food and water. 

“I am receiving messages from confreres who have difficulties because they cannot find food,” he said. “They cannot find some products in the market. But even if I had them in my house here, I cannot give them because I cannot go into the streets.”

Salesian Missions, the US fundraising arm of the Salesians of Don Bosco, has been providing support to Haiti since long before the 2010 earthquake.

Priests blocked

Archbishop Max Leroy Mésidor, Metropolitan Archbishop of Port-au-Prince and President of the Haitian Bishops’ Conference, echoed Fr. Auguste in describing the difficulties. 

“I cannot visit two-thirds of my diocese because the roads are blocked,” he said in a recent interview with Aid to the Church in Need. “The last celebration I was able to do in the cathedral was the Chrism Mass [in 2022],” he said. “It was full. There were 150 priests there, with numerous religious and many faithful. But from the Agnus Dei until the end of the service shots were ringing out; we could see the smoke rising nearby.”

Archbishop Mésidor said that gangs even come into churches to kidnap people, and that some parishes have closed because the priests were forced to leave. “Last week, a parish priest had to flee with his congregation,” he said. “They walked for 15 hours.”

Robyn Fieser, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, said that for the most part, the agency’s programming is continuing, as the bulk of it takes place outside Port-au-Prince. 

“Our offices there are currently closed and the staff is working from home,” she told Aleteia. “It’s a difficult, chaotic situation and our staff is anxiously waiting to see this resolved.”

Engage all sectors

With a government and a police force that seem ineffective, the future looks bleak. But it’s important that all sectors of Haiti’s population be engaged in whatever solutions eventually might be found, said a cultural anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame.

“We know that anything that is top down, that doesn’t have the participation of everyone who will be affected by any policy will fail,” said Karen Richman, who has been close to a community in Haiti for some 40 years. She is Director of Notre Dame’s Undergraduate Studies Institute for Latino Studies and Creole Language and Culture Program. “So any plans have to have Haitians leading the discussion and Haitians from all the key sectors. It can’t be imposed from the outside because it won’t have support and it will fail. It’s very important that the various voices from the population are heard.”

Even the gangs?

“They must be” engaged, Richman told Aleteia. “Everybody has to be engaged. … Gangs create an alternative social organization that people seek because it’s providing them with something: a livelihood, a social network, and as strange as it might seem, a certain kind of care. … You could even say that when, let’s say, a gang leader pays for your hospital bill, it’s the counterpart of health insurance, or when they support your family, so there has to be legitimate alternatives to the gang.”

There has been talk of the United Nations bringing in a peacekeeping force, but Richman pointed to the bad experience Haiti had with such a force after the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“His departure was used to occasion the entry of a UN peacekeeping force – the acronym was MINUSTAH [The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti] – that came to be hated by Haitians because of its ineptitude, because of the crimes they committed,” Richman said. She pointed out that Haiti was not at war with anyone when MINUSTAH was brought in.

Richman recalls being called on to translate in a case involving a boy who was raped by four UN peacekeepers from Uruguay, who videotaped their act and circulated the video around the world. 

“The peacekeeping forces did very little to interfere in the commission of crimes. And their role was really mixed. Peacekeeping forces from Nepal brought cholera with them,” she said. “And then when it was discovered that people were dying of cholera, the UN denied the source of it and delayed dealing with the problem, causing many many people to die.”

Fr. Auguste agreed that the UN mission did more harm than good. 

“Now they are talking about a new mission to come from Kenya,” he said. “I don’t know if we should expect something good or bad from this. But from some friends that I have in Africa and in other places, I heard that this is one of the most corrupt armies in the world. And also in Kenya they have a lot of cases of HIV. So when you have this situation that we have over here, and you will have an army that is one of the most corrupted in the world, what can you expect from this? For me, nothing.”

Nevertheless, Haitians carry on.

“We are still alive,” said the priest. “We are still a very resilient people. We are a very tough people. I know that all those situations, all those events will have some consequences on our persons but we hope to keep fighting.”

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