Silent walks of protest for an end to attacks on priests and religious
Five years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, there is profound concern among Catholics about recent acts of violence.
This was confirmed recently, on June 8, by Bishop Launay Saturné of the diocese of Jacmel, in an interview at ACN headquarters in Königstein, Germany.
Between November 2014 and February 2015 more than 20 religious communities were victims of robberies. In response, the Haitian bishops’ invited Catholics to join in a 24-hour prayer vigil. And the association of the Haitian religious communities called on its members to commemorate March 9th as a day of solidarity and sympathy with all the victims of the present insecurity. On that day all the institutions run by the religious communities remained closed and hundreds of religious sisters and priests walked in silent protest through the streets of the various Haitian cities, calling for an end to the violence. “We are calling on the state authorities to ensure that human rights are guaranteed,” Bishop Saturné said – irrespective of the religion of the individual. The demonstrations have had an effect, it seems. Since then there have been fewer attacks, according to Bishop Saturné.
The 2010 earthquake destroyed much of the Church’s pastoral structures in this Caribbean nation. Since then, many chapels and churches have successfully been rebuilt, and Bishop Saturné is very grateful for the generosity of the benefactors. But there is still a great deal to be done. Not a few churches are still structurally unstable and cannot be used. Holy Mass continues to be celebrated in these places in tents and other makeshift accommodation. As Bishop Saturné commented, “Before the earthquake, the situation in Haiti was difficult; after the earthquake it was catastrophic. And even today by no means all the damage has been repaired. There is still a great deal to do.”
Many people – and above all young people – are fleeing to the other side of the island, to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, in the hope of finding a better life. But for 49-year-old Bishop Saturné this wave of refugees is particularly painful for Haiti – and hence also for the Catholic Church. “The young people are crucial to the future of our country,” he said. And he is also concerned at the fact that these refugees do not receive an altogether friendly welcome in the Dominican Republic. It is a problem that Pope Francis is also aware of. At the end of May, speaking to the bishops of the Dominican Republic, he especially emphasized the need for the pastoral and charitable care of these migrants from Haiti.
Ruined churches and the exodus of young people are a concern for Bishop Launay Saturné
Another major concern of Bishop Saturné is the rebuilding of his episcopal church, the Cathedral of Jacmel, which was severely damaged in the earthquake. Experts have however determined that this historic 19th-century cathedral of Saint James and Saint Philip can indeed be restored. “The faithful are very attached to their Cathedral,” said Bishop Saturné, adding: “For the past five years now we have been celebrating Holy Mass, not in the cathedral, but in an altogether unsuitable hall instead. We need to have fitting places for religious worship, and for this reason it is important to rebuild our churches. But even if the church buildings themselves have been destroyed, the faith of the Catholics has not been destroyed.”
But another aspect that is every bit as important to Bishop Saturné as the physical reconstruction of the churches is his concern for the people of Haiti. In January, speaking about Haiti, Pope Francis had stressed emphatically that the human individual should be at the centre of the Church’s aid work. He in fact said: “There can be no true rebuilding of the country without the restoration of the human person in his entire fullness.”
Bishop Saturné and his priests want to make these words of the Pope a living reality. “The humanitarian work has to go hand in hand with the pastoral support. Each should complement the other,” the bishop insisted. For him, the vital key to this “human restoration” is education. “We need many more places of education – starting with the kindergartens and schools for the little ones and extending right up to the universities for the young adults,” he said. And he finds it a shocking thing that, although there are universities in the country, many young people cannot afford to attend them.
The Catholic Church plays a crucially important role in Haiti. Around 87% of its population of 9 million or so are Christians (57% Catholics and 30% Protestants). The Church is very much involved in charitable relief (Caritas), in healthcare and in education.
The terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010 claimed the lives of some 230,000 people, while some 300,000 more were injured and over 1.2 million left homeless. Among the victims of the earthquake were the head of the Catholic Church in Haiti, Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot of Port-au-Prince, together with his vicar general, three other priests, 45 religious and 31 seminarians.
Since the earthquake, ACN has supported the various dioceses in Haiti with a total of 8.3 million dollars. In addition to the building reconstruction, the money has been used for the training of catechists and seminarians. ACN also supports the priests in their life and ministry and provides them with the necessary means for their daily work, such as teaching materials and vehicles.