Religious freedom offers hope to Haiti in quake aftermath

February 4, 2010
The Rev. Clinton Rabb was trapped in darkness under the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, his legs crushed under a concrete pillar that collapsed during the Jan. 12 earthquake that rocked Haiti.

As a rescue team worked to free him more than two days into his ordeal, the United Methodist mission leader conveyed two messages to a London reporter:

“Tell my wife I deeply love her,” Rabb said.

And he added:

“I’m praying for all those who did not survive. “

Rabb died not long after from his injuries. But the concern for others amid his own suffering — an act of faith that continues to be replicated throughout Haiti — is symbolic of larger trends that offer hope to this embattled nation.

Haiti’s efforts to promote religious freedom, along with a recent period of relative political stability, mean a wide range of religious groups have ties on the ground in Haiti and are energizing faithful throughout the world to provide long-term assistance.

Catholics have historically held primacy in numbers and influence in Haiti. But many others are making humanitarian aid a priority. Pentecostals and Baptists, Muslims and Jews are among the religious groups responding in large numbers to the tragedy.

Even before the quake, some 80 missionary groups were dedicated to serving the poor in Haiti. Rabb represented a denomination that helps run hospitals and schools and sends several mission teams each year to Haiti although Methodists make up less than 1 percent of the island nation’s population.

A growing body of research shows how religious discrimination can lead to persecution and political isolation, and in some cases foment terrorism among the marginalized. The flip side is that religious freedom offers nations such as Haiti the opportunity to benefit from faith’s sweeter fruits of a humanitarian calling to ease suffering.

The Association of Religion Data Archives, which measures more than 20 indicators of religious freedom in its national profiles, says Haiti does not interfere with an individual’s right to worship, allows foreign missionaries to operate and places no restrictions on public preaching or conversion.

Overall, ARDA reports, government policy contributes to the free practice of religion.

By comparison, religious groups encountered difficulty even providing aid in some Asian countries after the 2004 tsunami.

Haiti’s openness levels the playing field for faith groups and parachurch organizations to offer assistance, says sociologist Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University, ARDA executive director.

“It allows more organizations to come in and offer aid,” he says. “It opens it up for many more volunteers in the aftermath.”

Constitutional protections

Haiti, which declared independence from France in 1804, has been plagued by political violence for much of its history. An armed rebellion led to the exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004.

However, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere has also taken steps to become one of the world’s leaders in protecting religious freedom. The 1987 Constitution provides for freedom of religion.

The ability to implement that constitution has dramatically improved, watchdog groups say, since the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti helped organize new elections. A democratically elected president and parliament took office in 2006.

Catholics make up an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of the nation’s 9 million people. There also are large numbers of Baptists and Pentecostals, and significant numbers of Episcopalians, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists and Mormons. Muslims and Jews also are among the religious communities in Haiti.

Only a small percentage of Haitians consider Voodoo their primary religion, though many combine some practices with their other beliefs.

In general, all the different religious groups have been able to get along.

The 2009 International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor said there are isolated instances of conflict between voodoo and Christianity.

However, the agency said, there have been no reports of forced conversions or societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice.

Aid transcends religious borders

As a result of Haiti’s openness, many organizations already had humanitarian infrastructure in place when the earthquake struck. That allowed help from all across the religious spectrum to begin almost immediately after the earthquake.

The Catholic Church, which mourned the deaths of thousands of followers including an archbishop and scores of priests, quickly sprung into action. On two successive Sundays, the church in the United States asked its members to make a special offering.

Groups from the Salvation Army to the Assemblies of God to Christian Aid Mission and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association began raising funds and planning relief efforts.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is working with Islamic Relief USA to send shipments of food and medical supplies. Several Jewish organizations have established Haiti earthquake relief efforts.

But the outpouring of aid is not the only measure of the practice of religious freedom in Haiti.

It is not insignificant that some volunteers on missions of mercy in Haiti before the quake would forge a bond in blood with the more than 150,000 Haitians who lost their lives.

At the funeral in Austin, Texas, for Clinton Rabb, Bishop Juan Alberto Cardona of the Methodist Church of Columbia, another troubled country, came to pay homage to a man who loved all people, “especially the smallest of this world.”

“No one,” Cardona said to Rabb‘s family and friends, “has love as big as those who give their life for their friends.”

No person – no nation – should suffer alone.

— David Briggs


David Briggs, a former national writer for The Associated Press who holds a master’s degree from Yale Divinity School, is consistently honored among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America.

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