‘Descent into hell’ - What the Catholic Church faces in Haiti

A Pillar Explainer

Haitian police on Thursday fired tear gas into a crowd assembled for a Mass to pray for peace in the country.

Haiti is experiencing a surge of violence that has included the kidnapping of priests and religious sisters.

Here’s what’s happening in Haiti:

What happened on Thursday?

Eleven bishops and numerous priests offered Mass April 15 at a parish church in suburban Port-Au-Prince.

Dubbed the “Mass for the freedom of Haiti,” the Catholics attending filled the church and spread into the surrounding streets.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” Archbishop Launay Saturné, president of the Haitian bishops’ conference, told the congregation in his homily, quoting Genesis 9 and calling for peace.

“We dream of another country; something must change," the archbishop added, quoting from an address given by Pope St. John II when he visited the country in March, 1983.

“We wonder when we will see the end of this situation in the country.”

“Who will say stop?” the archbishop asked.

After the Mass, as bishops and priests processed from the sanctuary, the congregation began to chant political slogans, calling on the government to bring order to a country in the throes of political chaos and surging gang violence. 

At the same time, police outside the church began to fire tear gas on the crowd assembled for the Mass.

A spokesman for the Haitian bishops’ conference says it is not clear why police fired the tear gas: some police representatives reportedly say they were trying to disperse the crowd to avoid a riot, while others say that those attending the Mass had set a car on fire and were destroying property. 

The bishops have urged calm after the melee at the Mass. 

“The Church is asking for everyone to remain calm so that we can return to the route of democracy and development,” a bishops’ conference spokesman said after the Mass. 

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Were priests kidnapped?

Five priests, two religious sisters, and three members of a priest’s family were kidnapped in Haiti on Divine Mercy Sunday, as they traveled together to a parish for the installation of a new pastor.

The group was reportedly kidnapped by a criminal gang demanding a $1 million ransom. They are not yet reported to have been freed. 

On the same day, an armed gang broke into a Port-Au-Prince orphanage, killing a guard, raping both a teenage girl and an orphanage employee, and sexually assaulting an adolescent. 

Gangs in Port-Au-Prince have conducted numerous other ransom kidnappings in recent weeks, some during religious gatherings, and have committed acts of arson and violence across the city. 

The politics

Haitian Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned Wednesday. The country’s foreign minister, Claude Joseph, was appointed interim prime minister.

The resignation came amid a constitutional crisis in Haiti, which began when Haitian president Jovenel Moise said he would not leave office Feb. 7, when legal experts say his term ended.

Moise claims that his five-year term does not end until 2022, because he did not officially take office until 2017, even while he won a controversial presidential run-off election in 2015, and a second election in November 2016. 

The bishops’ conference had been among those urging Moise to leave office in February, saying that no one in the country is above the law.

Instead of leaving office Feb. 7, Moise arrested opposition leaders and claimed that he had successfully thwarted a coup against his leadership. He has since cracked down on political opponents.

Moise had been previously criticized for removing judges from the country’s supreme court and announcing plans to hold a referendum on a new constitution in June, while saying that the current constitution renders government ineffective in the country.

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What the bishops say

Earlier this week, the Archdiocese of Port-Au-Prince said in a statement that “For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society.”

“The public authorities who are doing nothing to resolve this crisis are not immune from suspicion. We denounce complacency and complicity wherever it comes from,” the bishops added.

The country’s bishops directed that church bells be rung at noon on Thursday in parishes and chapels across the country. 

In order to draw attention to the kidnappings, they also directed that all schools, universities, and other Catholics institutions in Haiti, except those working in healthcare or direct service to the poor, should be closed for the day. Catholic-owned businesses and other institutions also closed in many parts of the country.

In February, the bishops’ conference said that “death, murders, lawless impunity and insecurity have become part of daily life for Haitians. Discontent is widespread, in almost all areas. Some of the issues are almost impossible to manage.”

“At the heart of this recurring socio-political and economic crisis, fueled by the poison of hatred and mistrust, it is preferable to seek and find consensus on any thorny issue; this must be built through social and institutional dialogue to avoid disasters,” the bishops said.

The Church in Haiti

One of the poorest and least developed nations in the world, Haiti has faced political instability for decades. There are more than 11 million Haitians, more than half of the country’s population is Catholic. The country has two archdioceses and eight suffragan dioceses; it has not had an apostolic nuncio since January.