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Islam's inroads in land of Voodoo and Christianity


In this Sept. 28, 2012 photo, Muslim men sit on prayer rugs at the  Al-Fattah Mosque during a Friday prayer service in Gressier, Haiti.  Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished  country, especially after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 that  killed hundreds of thousands and left millions more homeless. (AP/Dieu  Nalio Chery)

School teacher Darlene Derosier lost her home in the 2010 earthquake  that devastated her country. Her husband died a month later after  suffering what she said was emotional trauma from the quake. She and her  two daughters now live in tents outside the capital of Port-au-Prince,  surrounded by thousands of others made homeless and desperate by the  disaster.

What's helped pull her through all the grief, she said, has been her  faith, but not of the Catholic, Protestant or even Voodoo variety that  have predominated in this island country. Instead, she's converted to a  new religion here, Islam, and built a small neighborhood mosque out of  cinderblocks and plywood, where some 60 Muslims pray daily.

Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished  country, especially after the catastrophe two years ago that killed some  300,000 people and left millions more homeless. A capital where church  attendance is so prevalent that the streets echo with Christian hymns on  Sundays now has at least five mosques, a Muslim parliament member and a  nightly local television program devoted to Islam.

The disaster drew in aid groups from around the world, including Islamic  Relief USA, which built 200 shelters and a secondary school with 20  classrooms.

"After the earthquake we had a lot of people join," said Robert Dupuy,  an imam or Islamic spiritual leader in the capital. "We were organized.  We had space in the mosques to receive people and food to feed them."

Derosier said she was drawn to the religion's preaching of  self-discipline, emphasis on education and attention to cleanliness. The  constant washing, she said, helps her and other Muslims avoid cholera,  the waterborne illness that health officials say has sickened nearly  600,000 people and killed more than 7,500 others since surfacing after  the quake.

"This is a victory for me," the 43-year-old woman said about her  post-quake conversion. The former Protestant spoke in the tent-filled  courtyard of her home, her face framed by a clean, black head scarf.  "It's a victory that I received peace and found guidance."

In part, the Muslim community's growth can be attributed to the return  of expatriates who adopted the faith in the U.S., said Kishner Billy,  owner of the island's Telemax TV station and host of the nightly program  "Haiti Islam."

Billy and some others believe that Islam's Haitian past goes back before  the country's independence in 1804, and that a Jamaican slave and  Voodoo priest named Boukman who led the slave revolt that ousted French  colonizers was actually a Muslim.

"Islam is coming back to Haiti to stay," said Billy, who says he  converted from Christianity 20 years ago. "Future generations, my sons  and daughters, will speak about Islam."

There are no firm statistics on the number of Muslims in Haiti, just as  there are no reliable figures for many things in the country, including  Port-au-Prince's exact population.

A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center on the world's Muslim population  estimated that Haiti had about 2,000 devotees. Islamic leaders in the  country insist the figure is much higher and growing.

Islam is hardly unknown in the Caribbean; countries such as Trinidad  & Tobago, Suriname and Guyana have significant Muslim populations.  Many of those nations have strong roots in countries such as India and  Indonesia where Islam is widespread.

The ancestors of Haitians, by contrast, were brought largely from  non-Muslim areas of Africa. Haiti's French colonial rulers also imported  their Christian beliefs.

The recent growth of Islam, as well as other new religions, shows Haiti  is modernizing and becoming more pluralistic, said Patrick  Bellegarde-Smith, a professor of Africology at the University of  Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"Inroads made by Islam (and by extension, by Mormonism and  Rastafarianism) tell me that Haiti is very much a product of this  century, subject to all winds, ill-winds and otherwise, that blow over  the Caribbean nation-states," Bellegarde-Smith wrote in an email.

Rosedany Bazille, a 39-year-old teacher who converted several months  after the earthquake, said she had felt rudderless before embracing the  religion and was looking for a way forward.

"Islam can put people on the right path and show them who's God," she said.

Some Haitian Muslims belong to the Nation of Islam, a U.S.-based branch  of the religion that preaches black self-determination. Some local  members converted while serving time in U.S. prisons before being  deported back to Haiti. The group's leader, Louis Farrakhan, visited the  country for the first time last year.

The decision to convert has made some targets of discrimination.

The Haitian government doesn't recognize Islam as an official religion,  nor does it honor Muslim marriages. Wearing the skullcaps or flowing  head scarves typical of the religion can draw stares and  finger-pointing. Derosier said her neighbors gossip that she's evil.

Voodoo, a blend of West African religions created by slaves during the  colonial period, has long been a popular faith in the country, with  elements followed even by some of the 85 percent of the population who  claim Christian beliefs. Voodoo was once so commonly embraced that the  notorious dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier used it to terrify and  control the masses.

Most Christian Haitians identify themselves as Roman Catholics. A  priest, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in 1990  by opposing the hereditary dictatorship that continued with Francois'  son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

With so much still wrong in Haiti, the need for Islam couldn't be  greater, said Billy. Two months ago, he launched his live talk show to  educate his compatriots about his adopted faith.

"Haiti has gone astray. It can't produce anything," said Billy. "Right  now Haitians just want a visa to go the United States, to Canada. They  don't want to stay in Haiti."

With a tapestry of Mecca and praying crowds as a backdrop to his TV show  one recent evening, Billy and his co-host Ruben Caries invited watchers  to send questions about Islam via text messages.

Billy's BlackBerry buzzed with missives, including this one in Creole: "M vle vini Muslim" — "I want to be a Muslim."


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