JACMEL, Haiti – Whether preaching to peasants in mountain chapels or on radio to reach decision makers, Jacmel Bishop Guire Poulard has steadfastly condemned the killings in Haiti and the president he accuses of allowing them to flourish.
”This government was a disgrace,” Poulard said at his home overlooking the Caribbean last weekend. Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he added, “was corrupt and promoted nothing but violence and drug trafficking.”
But within the upper reaches of the church, Poulard has been on his own in his attacks against Aristide, himself a former Salesian priest.
Roman Catholic church leaders remained silent in the last few months about the increasingly violent reign of Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party and the gunmen who attacked opposition leaders and marches, drawing the ire of human rights activists and many lay church members.
”As a Catholic, I’m appalled that the church has not come out against the state-sponsored violence in Haiti,” said Charles Henri Baker, a businessman and leader of a civil coalition that opposed Aristide. “They knew where the violence was coming from, and they didn’t say anything.”
The Catholic Conference of Bishops tried to reach a compromise between Aristide and the opposition in December last year, denouncing all violence and calling for reconciliation but not pointing fingers.
When Pope John Paul II addressed the ”worrisome and painful” situation in Haiti on Feb. 29, just hours before news broke that Aristide had resigned and fled the country, he made no reference to the president or the terror he spread.
”The church is very slow regarding the situation in Haiti,” said Pierre Esperance of the National Coalition of Haitian Rights. “We had a lot of people dying at the hands of Lavalas.”
The Catholic church always has occupied a tenuous position in this impoverished country, where religion and politics feed off each other. Since independence 200 years ago, rulers have championed the church to appease the elites and railed against it to reap the support of the poor.
Today, the government helps pay the priests’ salaries and finance church charities and construction projects. When Aristide was reelected in 2000, he increased the state’s contribution to priests’ salaries fivefold.
This porous line between church and state historically has put the clergy in awkward positions when government death squads start hunting in the night.
”They were in a bind,” said Edouard Paultre, secretary general of the Protestant Federation of Haiti, which relentlessly criticized Aristide. “They had to preach against the violence. But they had to be careful because they are the state’s church.”
Archbishop Joseph Serge Miot, the top Catholic official in Haiti, said the church’s response has been appropriate.
”The church has always denounced violence,” he said. But he never spoke out against government killings because there was no proof, he added. “We can’t denounce someone if we don’t know who did it.”
But the church has never been a monolith.
Priests and nuns who work in the most squalid of slums, feeding the poor and running clinics where no other institutions will venture, saw the aftermath of the Lavalas killings. And many spoke out against them.
Among others, Father Max Dominique, 64, openly denounced ”terrorism of the state” and demanded justice, not just reconciliation.
”Otherwise you have impunity,” he said in an interview at his home in the capital suburb of Carrefour.
In 1986, when Dominique came back from 17 years of exile for criticizing the Duvalier family dictatorships, he got to know Aristide. Both were priests of a social justice movement called the Ti Legliz, Little Church, Haiti’s brand of the liberation theology that emerged throughout Latin America.
Aristide had a complicated relationship with the church. He was kicked out of the Salesian order and condemned by the bishops for “preaching violence and class warfare.”
But when word got out that he was going to be sent out of the country, thousands of people showed up at the burned-out remains of his old church to protest. The transfer never took place.
Dominique was concerned about Aristide’s violent liturgies and talk of class war, but he supported him anyway in his run for president in 1990.
”He crystallized the movement of justice for the poor,” Dominique said.
Aristide was toppled by an army coup in 1991 and was restored to power in 1994 by U.S. troops. When he was reelected in 2000 after disputed elections, supporters within the church began to criticize him.
William Smart, a priest and one of the founders of Lavalas, urged Haitians in May to reject a constitutional amendment that would have given Aristide more time in office.
In January, Dominique accused Aristide of ”presenting himself as a messiah” figure. Father Joachin Samedi called for “Aristide the dragon to be hunted.”
Still, Aristide retained a working relationship with the church leadership.
”You must understand, there is a contract between the church and state,” Archbishop Miot said, referring to an 1860 agreement. “The state has an obligation to support the church.”
Bishop Poulard thinks the church’s tepid response cost many Haitian lives.
”If the church had taken a strong position from the very beginning, this catastrophe would have been avoided,” he said.