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 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, said Max Beauvoir, the Ati or supreme leader of Haitian voodoo.
“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 January’s earthquake. It has killed more than 2,500 people and affected all of the nation’s 10 provinces.
As the epidemic death toll has risen, so too has popular fear and anger. Some Haitians have blamed Nepalese UN peacekeepers for bringing cholera to a nation where the disease had been absent for decades.
The UN 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.
Beauvoir said he had discussed the anti-voodoo attacks with Haiti’s Communications and Culture Ministry, which confirmed the killings this week. Haitian Minister Marie-Laurence Lassegue made a public appeal for the lynchings to end.
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.
Aid experts say the ignorance of many Haitians about cholera 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 Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), one of the foreign medical groups most active in fighting the epidemic.