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Many Haitians' religious faith unshaken by earthquake

By Arthur Brice, CNN
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Catholic church's reach
  • Many preachers tell followers not to lose faith
  • Most Haitians don't feel abandoned by God, says one Haitian
  • Voodoo is widely acknowledged but practiced only behind closed doors

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- The steeple clock at Port-au-Prince's St. Pierre Catholic Church is stopped at 4:53, the hour at which a devastating earthquake struck Haiti nearly one week ago.

The church gates were closed Sunday. The doors shuttered. But it seems Tuesday's quake has only strengthened the religious fervor many Haitians carry in their souls.

"A lot of people who never prayed or believed -- now they believe," said Cristina Bailey, a 24-year-old clerk.

In parks and backyards, anywhere a group gathers, the prayers of the Haitians can be heard. Last week, the call-and-response chanting and clapping that accompany those prayers pierced the darkness of night and the pre-dawn hours -- sometimes as early as 4 a.m. The singing and praying was particularly intense in Champs de Mars plaza, where hundreds of people have taken refuge. But the scene was repeated throughout the city, with preachers on megaphones exhorting the faithful, who responded with lyrics like "O Lord, keep me close to you" and "Forgive me, Jesus."

Many preachers are telling followers not to lose faith, that God remains with them regardless of what's happened.

Most Haitians don't feel abandoned, Bailey said.

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"People don't blame Jesus for all these things," she said. "They have faith. They believe that Jesus saved them and are thankful for that."

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Perhaps few personified that deep belief better than 11-year-old Anaika Saint Louis, who was pulled from the rubble Thursday night and later died. Her leg had been crushed, and doctors thought they might have to amputate her feet. She said she didn't care.

"Thank you, God, because he saved my life," she said. "If I lose my feet, I always had my life."

She was rescued too late. She died.

Jean Mackenle Verpre also suffered a crushing leg injury and was freed after 48 hours underground.

Asked what kept him going, he answered without hesitation: He believes in Jesus Christ and put his life in God's hands.

Colonized by France, Haiti is a strongly Catholic country. Christian motifs are everywhere in Port-au-Prince. Many vehicles bear signs like the one painted on the windshield of a truck on Rue Delmar: "Merci Jesus," it said. A woman passing by on Avenue Christophe chanted softly: "Accept Jesus."

"In Haiti, you have Protestants and Catholics, and you have your percentage of each," said J.B. Diederich, a native-born Haitian who now lives in Miami, Florida, but returned to the Caribbean for several days after the earthquake. "But everybody is 100 percent voodoo."

Voodoo is widely acknowledged but practiced only behind closed doors, with practitioners often placing candles and icons on the floor of a home and dancing to music and drums.

Followers believe the world is under the power of loas -- spirits and deities who act as intermediaries between humans and God. In voodoo, disasters like Tuesday's quake are not the result of natural forces, but displeasure by a loa.

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"It's in every apartment. The voodoo is our culture," 25-year-old Alex Gassan said. "It's like the folklore."

Gassan proudly calls himself a Catholic, pulling out a crucifix necklace from under his shirt to show a reporter.

Many observers have a simple explanation for what makes Haitians so devout.

"Because in all poor countries, you have to believe in something," said Agnes Pierre-Louis, the Haitian-born manager of her family-owned hotel. "If they don't have that, they don't have anything."

Added Diederich: "They leave everything in the hands of God. When you have so little, what else can you turn to?"

Others say a special relationship between Haitian independence leaders and the devil are to blame for the nation's extreme poverty and many problems. According to some fundamentalist Christians, including Pat Roberston, revolt leaders made a pact with Satan in 1791 to gain independence from France. Haiti won its freedom in 1804.

Robertson said last week that deal brought on the quake.

"You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free," Robertson was quoted as saying. "But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other."

Robertson previously linked natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and terrorist attacks to legalized abortion in the United States.

Mainstream Christians want no part of that explanation.

"Why do we always have to go here?" said David Burns, pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. "Can't there be another explanation rather than, 'God did this?' Why not, 'God does not micromanage the world. God's heart breaks with us and instantaneously moves to comfort, catalyze imagination and compassion, and instill hope.' "

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