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Roman Catholic priests and bishops are divided over the military-dom

September 22, 1987

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Roman Catholic priests and bishops are divided over the military-dominated junta that has ruled Haiti for 19 months. One side is calling for the junta’s resignation and the other is appealing for patience.

The dispute has riven a body that had spoken in one voice against the unyielding Duvalier dictatorship the junta replaced last year.

Activists who work with the poorest people in this poorest country in the Western Hemisphere accuse the provisional government of doing little to alleviate misery, and of violating human rights. They demand from pulpits and street corners that the junta step down.

On the other side is the Haitian Bishops Conference, which has deplored Haiti’s drift into violence and anarchy but has avoided an open break with the government, in part because Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy has promised he will resign after elections in November.

″The position of the church is ... it cannot demand that the government step down,″ said the Rev. Joseph Serge Miot, permanent secretary to the conference, which sets church policy. ″It’s not the church’s duty to do that.

He added in an interview, ″The reality is the government is conducting the violence, or tolerating it, or not controlling it. We don’t have faith in the government. We have faith in elections.″

That position is unsatisfactory to the activists, including the Rev. Renald Clerisme, a priest who has spent the past months in Haiti’s arid northwest peninsula organizing peasants to press the government for land reform, schools, hospitals and other services.

″The tensions are becoming stronger between the progressive side and the conservative side of the church,″ Clerisme said in an interview. ″It’s an open conflict between the official church and the popular church. I have chosen to take sides with the poor.″

The Catholic church - whose 600 priests and 1,500 laypeople operate hundreds of schools, dispensaries, feeding centers - is the biggest and one of the only nationwide organizations in this Caribbean country of 6 million.

Eight of every 10 Haitians are at least nominal Catholics, and Catholicism was the state religion until a new constitution was approved last March.

The church traditionally was not a strong force for change, however. Four years ago, it was led by Archbishop Francois Wolff Ligonde, the cousin of the wife of the now-ousted Jean-Claude Duvalier, who became president for life after his father, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, died in 1971.

Duvalier in 1983 gave up right of Haitian chiefs of state to appoint bishops, under an 1860 agreement with the Vatican.

″Francois Duvalier used to say, ‘You are my bishops. I appointed you,’ ″ said the Rev. Hugo Prieste, the director of the Catholic station Radio Soleil who was expelled by Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1985.

″People thought the church was sold to the government,″ Prieste said in an interview. ″I don’t think that was true, but that was the perception.″

Pope John Paul II revitalized the Haitian church when he visited in March 1983 and denounced Haiti’s economic and social misery. At an outdoor Mass attended by 200,000, the pope said: ″Things must change here.″

The pope also negotiated the end of the 1860 Concordat that gave the chief of state the right to name bishops.

The opposition of the church to the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship inspired the demonstrations that prompted the Jean Claude to flee into exile in France on Feb. 7, 1986.

Today’s activists want the church to similarly confront the Namphy government.

″We need a popular, revolutionary government,″ said the Rev. Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Salesian priest whose parish is in a Port-au-Prince slum. ″We have to recognize the fight between the classes - the poor and the rich.″

The church division became evident this summer after soldiers shot and killed more than 30 anti-government demonstrators, and wounded more than 200 others. The unrest was touched off by Namphy’s attempt to formally take control of elections, and to ban a militant labor union.

Church activists and the political left blame the junta for the peasant clash over land in which an estimated 225 were killed in Haiti’s northwest peninsula in late July.

Mission houses have been burned and rural priests, accused of being communists, have had to flee to the capital or to the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbor to the east on the island of Hispaniola.

A Mass in the town of St. Marc, 60 miles north of the capital, at which Aristide was to preach was broken up in August by armed men, and a layman mistakenly identified as Aristide was attacked with rocks and sticks.

Aristide, one of the most militant priests, has called on the government to distribute state land to peasants, provide jobs, prosecute members of the former regime accused of human rights abuses, and oust Duvalierists from public office and the army.

He wants the church to press the government until it responds.

Moderate priests say the church now preaches in Creole, the only language all Haitians understand, instead of French; and has begun a massive literacy program, among other moves to respond to Haiti’s needs. They bridle at accusations they are out of touch or indifferent.

″I would not say the church is becoming more active. I think it has been active,″ said a spokesman for the Conference of Haitian Religious, which represents 56 orders of priests. ″I don’t think the church failed its duty by urging an end to violence″ without demanding that the junta resign.

The bishops conference issued a pastoral letter in early September cautioning priests against becoming too involved in politics, and chastized the most militant for causing strains within the church.

Forty six priests, nuns and laypeople recently gave their response.

″The church is us. We are the church,″ they said in an open letter to the bishops. ″We will continue struggling together with the poor, helping the sick and homeless. ... The popular church is a reality.″

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