- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

PLAINE DU NORD, Haiti — Josephine Derulien, carrying candles and a heavy spiritual debt, walked for 17 hours last month to reach this small farming town six miles southwest of Cap Haitien, swollen by thousands of people during an annual four-day pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage, one of the most important in the voodoo religion, began July 23 with rituals to Ogou, the god of war, and ended with rites to the goddess of love, Erzuli. This year’s crowd of more than 10,000 was half the turnout of last year.

“I swore I would make this pilgrimage,” said Miss Derulien, 30, wearing a blue dress with a red kerchief, the traditional colors of Ogou. “I had a problem and it was solved. Now I’m here to pay my debt.”

Although millions still practice voodoo — now a state-sanctioned religion in Haiti — some are turning their backs on the religion brought from Africa, testing other faiths as their Caribbean country grapples with growing instability and poverty.

An estimated 70 percent of Haiti’s 8.8 million people practice voodoo to some extent, including many who consider themselves to be Roman Catholics or adherents of other religions.

But a growing number — estimated at 30 percent — identify themselves as Protestant, said Andre Corten, a Canadian sociologist. This smaller group adamantly opposes voodoo, which sometimes requires offerings to a pantheon of gods. In a country where most people survive on less than $1 a day and where the government hasn’t managed to improve conditions, the appeal of a cheaper religion is powerful.

Thousands of missionaries, many of them Americans, can be seen every day in Haiti proselytizing and trying to draw people away from voodoo. Many Haitians now flock to evangelical Christian churches instead of voodoo temples.

“The economic stagnation has cast a shadow over voodoo,” said musician and voodoo priest Ronald “Aboudja” Derenencourt, 48.

One girl selling bananas on the north coast pleaded with pilgrims to reject voodoo.

“Voodoo is no good,” said Rose Jean, 12, whose family of six has turned to evangelical Christianity. “They don’t recognize Jesus.”

The Catholic Church waged an unsuccessful campaign to eradicate voodoo in the 1940s. The religion was driven underground for years and disparaged by foreigners as a hodgepodge of beliefs.

In April, however, the Haitian government officially sanctioned voodoo, allowing its priests for the first time to officiate at legal marriages.

Many voodoo practitioners have been wary of this limited recognition, fearful it was taken to woo them to the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose popularity is waning with hard times.

“Here we pray to everybody. Some pray to St. James, others to Ogou,” said Jean Joseph, 45, a farmer who made the pilgrimage but prayed at the town’s Catholic church. “You serve God or the devil, as you like.”

Not far from the church where Mr. Joseph and other others prayed, men and women stripped down to their shorts and plunged into a shallow mud basin. They emerged in a trance and said they were transformed.

“When I come out of the basin, I tremble. I feel the might of Ogou, who empowers me all year long,” said voodoo priest Harvey Dorvil, 31.

Around the basin, voodoo priests, priestesses and witch doctors congregate. They are on the lookout for patients whose ills they claim they can cure with spells and herbal remedies.

Merchants sold everything from radios and clothing to straw hats and religious items like candles, perfumes, amulets and images of the saints.

Most supplicants to Ogou seek help for money or love troubles. Miss Derulien, like many, wouldn’t say what she had requested.

“Voodoo is our family faith,” said Roseline Pierre, 25, a student nurse from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who was born in Haiti. “Its spirituality is powerful. You just have to dig deep enough.”

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