Haiti urged to halt cholera anti-voodoo lynchings

PORT-AU-PRINCE, (Reuters) – The head of Haiti’s  voodoo religion appealed to authorities on Thursday to halt  bloody lynchings of voodoo priests by people who blame them for  causing the Caribbean country’s deadly cholera epidemic.

Since the epidemic started in mid-October, at least 45 male  and female voodoo priests, known respectively as “houngan” and  “manbo,” have been killed. Many of the victims were hacked to  death and mutilated by machetes, Max Beauvoir, the “Ati” or  supreme leader of Haitian voodoo, told Reuters.

“They are being blamed for using voodoo to contaminate  people with cholera,” Beauvoir said.

He said the killers accused voodoo priests of spreading  cholera by scattering powder or casting “spells” and complained  that local police and government officials were not doing  enough to halt the lynchings and punish the killers. Voodoo is  recognized and protected by the constitution as one of Haiti’s  main religions.

“My call is to the authorities so they can assume their  responsibilities,” said Beauvoir, who fears more attacks  against voodoo devotees. Most of the lynchings occurred in the  southwest of Haiti but also in the center and the north.

Since emerging in central regions in October, the cholera  epidemic has ripped through Haiti’s poor population, still  traumatized from a January earthquake. It has killed well over  2,500 people and affected all of the nation’s 10 provinces.

Cholera is mainly spread by contaminated water and food.

As the epidemic death toll has risen, so too has popular  fear and anger. Some Haitians have blamed Nepalese United  Nations peacekeepers for bringing cholera to a Caribbean nation  where the disease had been absent for decades.

The U.N. mission in Haiti maintains there is no conclusive  evidence to back this accusation, despite a report by an expert  contracted by the French government that linked the infection  to latrines at the Nepalese camp located beside a river.

In November, there were anti-U.N. riots over the cholera,  which continued to claim victims as the Western Hemisphere’s  poorest state held elections marred by confusion and fraud  charges. Final vote results have still not been announced.

Beauvoir said he had discussed the anti-voodoo attacks with  Haiti’s Communications and Culture Ministry, which confirmed  the killings this week. Minister Marie-Laurence Lassegue made a  public appeal for the lynchings to end.

FEAR AND  IGNORANCE

More than half of Haiti’s nearly 10 million people are  believed to practice voodoo, a religion brought from West  Africa several centuries ago by slaves forced to work on the  plantations of white masters in what was then the rich French  Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue.

Cholera, which causes virulent debilitating diarrhea, can  kill in hours if left untreated. But it also can be easily  cured through fast rehydration of the patient. Aid experts say  the ignorance of many Haitians about the disease is one of the  causes of the fears and suspicions surrounding the epidemic.

In at least one case in central Haiti, an angry mob worried  about possible contagion destroyed a cholera treatment center  being set up by foreign medical workers.

For this reason, public education about the disease and how  it is spread and can be treated is essential, aid groups say.

“It is hardly surprising that people would be anxious about  cholera when it appears in their communities for the first  time,” said Delphine Chedorge, head of mission in Haiti for  Doctors Without Borders/ Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the  foreign medical groups most active in fighting the epidemic.

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