Voodoo: The old religion rises from the rubble in Haiti

In the aftermath of one of the world's worst earthquakes, priests and missionaries are competing for the souls of a traumatised population. Kim Sengupta reports from Port-au-Prince

Every evening, Monique Henri offers thanks to the voodoo deity Ogu Feray at a shrine in her home for sparing her family from the earthquake. She used to be a regular worshipper at her local Catholic church. But these days she goes there less often.

The disaster has moved voodoo centre-stage in Haiti. Yesterday, 1,000 members of the national convention of voodoo priests met in an emergency session to formulate their response to it. Failure to take decisive action, they warned, could bring down another disaster on the shattered country.

The devastation in Haiti has led many in the traumatised population to seek solace in faith and mysticism and there has been a move by some to turn back towards the old religion, with a marked rise in the numbers taking part in voodoo ceremonies and rituals.

The "day of calamity", as Haitians call it, was greeted by some Christian fundamentalists in the US with sanctimonious Schadenfreude rather than compassion. Pat Robertson, the former presidential candidate and spiritual guide of the Republican right, declared that the thousands dead an injured got what they deserved because they had made a "pact with the devil".

And in the quake's aftermath, the island has seen a surge of religious organisations, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and even Sikh, mostly offering relief, but some also proselytising.

The Scientologists have the highest profile, with one of their most prominent members, Hollywood star John Travolta, flying in members of the church and supplies, on his private jet. An outfit called Faith Comes By Hearing have sent 600 solar powered Bibles. The Church of the True Path recommends that Haitians should cleanse themselves by fasting – something which many are already doing, albeit involuntarily.

But the foreigners have trouble competing with voodoo, the fusion of African religions and Christianity which found its first adherents among the original slave population, and which is now deeply ingrained in the culture of the country.

It's a faith that leaps barriers: as the Haitian saying goes, people here are "60 per cent Catholic, 40 per cent Protestant and 100 per cent voodoo."

"If everything is good, they go to church," said Pierre Andre Laguerre, a parish priest at Sainte Bernadette Church in Port-au-Prince .""If something bad is happening to them, they go to the voodoo priest to get help."

Ms Henri, 36, who has three children, sees no contradiction between her voodoo and her Christian worship. Wearing a silver crucifix over her brown jumper, she said "We all believe in God. But I also feel voodoo is powerful. We feel the luas [deities] will protect us from further dangers. We are all seeking answers to what happened."

Standing beside her, Clavius Philisquer, 72, was keen to point out "Voodoo is part of our history, our culture. It unified us when we fought in the war of independence against the French. Voodoo gave power to the black people, that is why some Western countries say bad things about the religion. I have seen how the luas can cure people who have become mentally ill because they were possessed. It is real."

Max Beauvoir, the chief hungan, or priest of the voodoo hierarchy, was busy at his home in Mariani, near Port-au-Prince, distributing bags of rice to his followers. "This is the first relief that the voodoo people have received," he said. "We are being discriminated against. The aid distribution is being done by American Protestants who seem to have taken over the airport. We know what Pat Robertson said, it was ignorant, but it is part of trying to denigrate voodoo and promote evangelism".

Mr Beauvoir, 75, a biochemist trained at the Sorbonne and in New York, said "We have suffered from the Hollywood version of voodoo, with blood sacrifices and pins being stuck into dolls. They try to denigrate us, the man from Hollywood who became president talked about 'voodoo economics' and he left America with one of the worst budget deficits in its history.

"In reality, what has happened in the earthquake is the end of an era. It has turned many more people towards us. They realise that we cannot go on the way we were. There are changes taking place spiritually throughout the world. We have had white people joining us from the US, Britain and Germany. Many of them are successful people, but belief in voodoo has made them even more successful.

"But the way the Christian missionaries are doing their conversion is wrong. They are going after the most vulnerable people. They are going after children. Why do you think they want to take so many of our children away for adoption?"

The UN and relief agencies have warned of an increase in child smuggling. Nadine Perrault, Unicef's child protection officer for the region, says "This is a huge, huge opportunity for the gangs. There's lots of evidence of the traffickers moving fast, using all sorts of means." A Canadian priest, Pastor Noel Asmonin, said he was offered a young boy for $50 at a refugee centre.

Growing Haitian anger at their children being taken across the border was fuelled by the arrest of 10 American Baptists at Port-au-Prince as they tried to take 33 young orphans, aged from two months to 12 years, into the Dominican Republic.

The Haitian authorities claim that the group, the Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission, from Idaho, lacked authorisation. The government now requires the personal authorisation of the Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, for the removal of any child.

Defending the group's action, its leader, Laura Silsby, said: "In this chaos, we are just trying to do the right thing." Sean Lankford of Meridian, Idaho, whose wife and 18-year-old daughter are due to appear at a court today charged with trafficking, protested. "Nothing can be further from the truth. The children were going to get the clothes, food and love they need."

Haitians bitterly point out that while trying to take their young to America, the US authorities have imposed restrictions on earthquake victims being taken there for medical treatment. Medical air-lifts came to a halt after Charlie Crist, the Florida Governor, warned that hospitals in his state, which has been receiving most the of the patients, are "quickly reaching saturation". However, there was a beacon of hope for many with the announcement last night that Medevac evacuation flights to the US would resume "within 12 hours".

"Having received assurances that additional capacity exists both here and among our international partners, we determined that we can resume these critical flights," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, adding that Florida was identifying hospitals to receive the patients.

American doctors working in Haiti have warned that the only hope of survival for many critically ill patients lies in removal to a US hospital. Dr Barth Green, who has come from Miami, said at a field hospital near the international airport: "We have a hundred patients who will die in the next day or two if we don't Medevac them." His colleague, Dr David Pitcher, pointed to five-year-old Betina Joseph suffering from tetanus lying on a cot with flies buzzing around her. "If we can't save her by getting her out right away, we won't save her".

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said: "There has been no policy decision to suspend evacuee flights. This situation arose because we started to run out of room."

Some evangelical relief workers have seized on reports which appear to show that voodoo's "real dark side" has begun to show itself. One prevalent belief, it is claimed, is that loup-garou have emerged from the torn earth to prey on humans. The word is French for werewolf, but it also applies to other animals which possess men and women and impel them to suck the blood of children.

According to the same reports night-time patrols have been organised in some neighbourhoods against the malignant spirits, and there have been reports of a lynching at a refugee camp, La Grotte. Michaelle Casseus, one of the camp residents, said " After the earthquake, the loup-garou fled from prison. He was boasting that he was in jail because he was caught eating children. During the night, he went into the tents and tried to take someone's child. He was killed."

The Independent could not find any loup-garou patrols in Port-au-Prince, and Haitian officials say the death at the refugee camp was the result of an attempted child snatching for trafficking rather than vampirism.

Anthony Pascal, a senior hungan in the capital Port-au-Prince, stressed " Voodoo is not about black magic. It is a combination of various religions including Christianity and it was started partly as a reaction to the brutality of slavery. It is not there to harm people, but to help and protect them.

"We have a lot of beliefs modern people should believe in. For example, we believe that trees have spirits which we should not harm otherwise we will all suffer. But then we had deforestation here and the ecology suffered."

Mr Pascal is better known as Kompe Filo, the host of a popular television show. He and his fellow priests, he claims, foresaw the earthquake. "We knew something big was going to happen six months ago and it would involve an upheaval."

God's anger with man was the cause of this upheaval, Mr Pascal insisted, a view echoed by Protestant and Catholic priests on the island. "People have turned away from spiritual values. They have become too obsessed with money. They are losing their humanity. That is why this happened. People realise that and that is why they are joining us more and more."

Exactly how many are joining, however, is open to conjecture. Among the hundreds gathered outside Mr Beauvoir's house waiting for the food distribution was 76-year-old Andy Jameau. "All the people around here are supposed to be Voodoo believers," he said. "But I would say around 40 per cent are not that and I am one of them. I would say I am Voodoo, Catholic or anything if it means I would get food for my family. I believe in any God who fills my stomach."