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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 April, 2003, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Haiti makes voodoo official
Summoning of spirits in a voodoo ceremony in Haiti
Over 90% of Haitians are said to practice voodoo

Voodoo has been practised in Haiti since the late 18th Century, but only now has it been recognised as a religion on a par with others worshipped in the country.

Haiti's Catholic President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, took the decision earlier in April which means that voodoo ceremonies such as marriages now have equal standing with Catholic ones.

The mixture of gods and goddesses and Catholic saints is an integral part of Haitian life - one common saying is that Haitians are 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant, and 100% voodoo.

"We've always been the majority religion in Haiti - it's never been illegal to be a voodooisant," said Mambu Racine Sumbu, an American voodoo priestess who has been practising in Haiti for 15 years.

She told the BBC World Service's Reporting Religion programme: "What President Aristide has done for us, for which we are very thankful, is to facilitate us in obtaining the status that we need to perform legally-binding religious ceremonies."

'Great beauty'

Haitian voodoo acquired a poor reputation internationally during the dictatorships of the voodoo physician, Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc".

Ninety-five percent of voodoo is simply the invoking of spirits to help people survive what is sometimes a very difficult life
Voodoo expert Leslie Griffiths

US Presidents John F Kennedy - whose assassination Papa Doc claimed "credit" for following the placing of a voodoo curse upon him - and Jimmy Carter condemned the regimes for using voodoo to repress their people.

But Priestess Sumbu said that proper use of voodoo had little to do with such oppression.

"Much of the image that people have of Haiti is based on anti-voodoo propaganda," she said.

"Our religion is a religion of great power and beauty.

"What President Aristide's decree has done for us is to give us the same legal status as other religions in Haiti, but we have always been the majority religion - over 90% of Haitians are voodooisant.

"So now we're hoping to obtain something to allow us to set up our own schools, our own hospitals and so forth.

"This is the first step."

'Hollywood view'

Leslie Griffiths, one time head of the British Methodist Church and a renowned expert on Haiti, said he also welcomed the decision.

"Voodoo is part of the air that Haitians breathe," he said.

"Contrary to what Western believers might think, it's not all that bad.

"There are excesses that are committed in the name of voodoo that everybody - including some voodoo worshippers - would take some position against.

"But on the whole, it's not at all unusual for people to be both in the world of voodoo and in the world of Roman Catholicism."

And he attacked the stereotypical view of voodoo as a sort of black magic cult.

"Frankly this Hollywood view is one of the first things people need to disabuse themselves of," he said.

"Ninety-five percent of voodoo is simply the invoking of spirits to help people survive what is sometimes a very difficult life, and sometimes to ease and placate what is a very distant God.

"I believe that the mystique of voodoo has existed because it isn't official.

"Now it has been given an official position, how much will they contribute? What social attitudes will develop?"

Country profile: Haiti
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Haiti
11 Mar 03  |  Country profiles


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