Pat Robertson's Haiti Comments Spark Controversy, Discussion of Country's Religion

Destruction of Catholic and Voodoo places of worship disrupt social supports.

January 14, 2010, 2:09 PM

Jan. 14, 2010 — -- Where once they gathered in ornate cathedrals and vibrant voodoo temples, Port-au-Prince residents gathered Wednesday night in the streets to pray, their mournful supplications punctuated by the cries of survivors still trapped under the rubble of Tuesday's earthquake.

The hymns they sang were Christian, but religion in Haiti has long been a fluid mix of Catholic and Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions, which for centuries have made the island country a battleground for Western missionaries who view voodoo as devil worship.

When American televangelist Pat Robertson on Wednesday attributed the earthquake to the Haitian people's "pact to the devil," it shined a light on the hostility some foreign Christians have aimed at the country's religious traditions.

Some 80 percent of Haitians are practicing Roman Catholics. But despite their Christian faith, half the country's population practices voodoo, an Afro-Caribbean faith in which practitioners cast spells, conduct sacrifices, worship spirits and believe in zombies, according to statistics compiled by the CIA World Factbook.

Increasingly, evangelical Protestant faiths, like Pentecostalism, which stress a locally popular belief in an "unseen spirit world," have taken hold.

The earthquake killed Joseph Mio, archbishop of Port-au-Prince as well as some 100 Catholic priests, or about one in eight, and left an unknown number of priests, nuns and seminarians homeless. Catholic institutions, including the archbishop's palace and the city's primary cathedral in Port-au-Prince, were destroyed, as were countless voodoo temples, which served as important social-service institutions.

With many centerpieces of religious life destroyed, the effects the earthquake will have on the spiritual landscape remain to be seen, according to Elizabeth McAlister, a professor at Wesleyan University who studies religion in Haiti.

"We know that once night falls, the response of the population, which is camping out on the streets, is to sing hymns and pray. That tells us right away the response has been an intense reaching out to the spiritual," said McAlister.

Haiti Earthquake Sparks Prayer Gatherings

When previous tragedies hit the island nation, including four back-to-back hurricanes in 2008, there was an uptick in religious fervor, and the increased conversion to charismatic forms of Protestantism has tracked with the country's modern political and natural disasters since the 1970s.

This soon after the earthquake, McAlister said Haitians are principally concerned with search and rescue efforts, but the conditions there both support and hinder some religious rituals, particularly voodoo.

"It is easier to do Christian prayers on the spot than conduct voodoo rituals," McAlister said. "Voodoo usually takes more time and the rituals are more elaborate."

Like Christianity, voodoo is monotheistic, but the incorporation of pagan practices -- including the use of spells and spirit worship -- has put it at odds with some traditional Christians.

Lacking a centralized hierarchy, voodoo's religious leaders can be women or men, known as hougans, who often create communities of followers that meet in small temples. Many rituals include dancing to drums and the sacrifice of animals, like chickens and goats. In some rituals, including one intended to heal the sick, the blood of a goat is consumed.

But voodoo houses of worship also serve roles familiar to those who practice Western religions.

"Most voodoo temples in Port-au-Prince function as social-services agencies, medical centers, psychologists, and places for trade," said McAlister. "Voodoo priests and priestesses perform a function like social workers. Temples form imaginary families in which congregations are the children of priest and priestess, who are often charismatic local leaders."

Thus far, in the days after the devastating quake, public religious displays have been reserved. Haitian citizens meet on the streets -- what Port-au-Prince resident Richard Morse, via Twitter, called the city's "new living rooms" -- for makeshift prayer gatherings, like this one recorded by "Nightline" Wednesday.

Robertson Comments Spark Backlash

American religious institutions are moving millions of dollars in aid to help Haiti, but some evangelical leaders, like Robertson, have used a centuries-old Haitian legend as justification for believing the country is in league with the devil.

"You know, something happened a long time ago in Haiti. They got together and swore a pact to the devil," Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club" Wednesday.

"They said, 'We will serve you if you get us free from the French.' True story."

The comments sparked a backlash, with many accusing Robertson of implying that the Haitians were responsible for the earthquake.

A spokesman for Robertson's CBN tried to clarify the pastor host's comments, saying, "Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God's wrath.

"His comments were based on the widely discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed," CBN spokesman Chris Roslan said in a statement.