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Shunned for centuries, Vodou grows powerful as Haitians seek solace from unrelenting gang violence

Shunned publicly by politicians and intellectuals for centuries, Vodou is transforming into a more powerful and accepted religion across Haiti, where its believers were once persecuted. (AP Video/Pierre Luxama)

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) 鈥 The Vodou faithful sing, their voices rising above the gunfire erupting miles away as frantic drumbeats drown out their troubles.

They pause to swig rum out of small brown bottles, twirling in unison as they sing in Haitian Creole: 鈥淲e don鈥檛 care if they hate us, because they can鈥檛 bury us.鈥

Shunned publicly by politicians and intellectuals for centuries, Vodou is transforming into a more powerful and accepted religion across Haiti, where its believers were once persecuted. Increasingly, they seek solace and protection from violent gangs that have killed, raped and kidnapped thousands in recent years.

The violence has left more than 360,000 people homeless, largely shut down Haiti鈥檚 biggest seaport and closed the main international airport two months ago. Basic goods including food and life-saving medication are dwindling; nearly 2 million Haitians are on the verge of famine.

From January to March alone, more than 2,500 Haitians were killed or injured, up more than 50% from the same period last year, according to the U.N.

Amid the spiraling chaos, numerous Haitians are praying more or visiting Vodou priests known as 鈥渙ungans鈥 for urgent requests ranging from locating loved ones who were kidnapped to finding critical medication needed to keep someone alive.

鈥淭he spirits help you. They鈥檙e always around,鈥 said Sherly Norz茅us, who is initiated to become a 鈥渕ambo,鈥 or Vodou priestess.

FILE - A vodou pilgrim attends a Mass marking the feast day of agriculture and work, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 1, 2024. The syncretic religion that melds Catholicism with animist beliefs has no official leader or creeds. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)

A vodou pilgrim attends a Mass marking the feast day of agriculture and work, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)

FILE - Believers dance during the St. George vodou celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, April 24, 2024. While spirits infuse believers with energy and hope, Vodou priests warn they don鈥檛 perform miracles. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)
Believers dance during the St. George vodou celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)
FILE - A Vodouist invokes a gede spirit, family of Iwa, during the Saint George celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. Vodou has a single God known as 鈥淏ondye,鈥 Creole for 鈥淕ood God,鈥 and more than 1,000 spirits known as the lwa 鈥 some that aren鈥檛 always benevolent.(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)
A Vodouist invokes a gede spirit during the Saint George celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

In February, she invoked Papa Ogou, god of war and iron, when 20 armed men surrounded her car as she tried to flee the community of Bon Repos.

Her three children and the two children of her sister, who died during childbirth, sat next to her.

鈥淲e are going to burn you alive!鈥 she recalled the gunmen yelling.

Gangs had invaded their neighborhood before dawn, setting fire to homes amid relentless gunfire.

鈥淚 prayed to Papa Ogou. He helped me get out of the situation,鈥 Norz茅us said.

When she opened her eyes, the gunmen signaled that she was free to leave.

Vodou was at the root of the revolution that led Haiti to become the world鈥檚 first free Black republic in 1804, a religion born in West Africa and brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people.

The syncretic religion that melds Catholicism with animist beliefs has no official leader or creeds. It has a single God known as 鈥淏ondye,鈥 Creole for 鈥淕ood God,鈥 and more than 1,000 spirits known as the lwa 鈥 some that aren鈥檛 always benevolent.

During Vodou ceremonies, lwa are offered treats ranging from papayas and coffee to popcorn, lollipops and cheese puffs. A ceremony is considered successful if a Vodouist is possessed by an lwa.

FILE - Vodou pilgrims attend a Mass marking the feast day of agriculture and work, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Amid the spiraling chaos, a growing number of Haitians are praying more or visiting Vodou priests known as 鈥渙ungans鈥 for urgent requests ranging from locating loved ones who were kidnapped to finding critical medication needed to keep someone alive. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)

Vodou pilgrims attend a Mass marking the feast day of agriculture and work, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)

Some experts consider it a religion of the exploited.

鈥淰odou is the system that Haitians have developed to deal with the suffering of this life, a system whose object is to minimize pain, avoid disaster, soften losses, and strengthen the survivors as much as the survival instinct,鈥 Haitian sociologist La毛nnec Hurbon wrote in a recent essay.

Vodou began to take shape in the French colony of Saint-Domingue during funeral rituals for enslaved people and dances called 鈥渃alendas鈥 that they organized on Sunday evenings. It also was practiced by slaves known as Maroons who escaped to remote mountains and were led by Fran莽ois Mackandal, a Vodou priest.

In August 1791, some 200 slaves gathered at night in Bois-Caiman in northern Haiti for a Vodou ceremony organized by Dutty Boukman, a renowned enslaved leader and Vodou priest. They sacrificed a pig, drank its blood and swore to keep secret an imminent revolt against slavery, according to a surgeon present at the ceremony.

After a 13-year revolution, Haiti became independent, but Vodou remained oppressed.

The country鈥檚 new leaders condemned Vodou worship, as did the Catholic Church.

Catholic leaders demanded parishioners take an oath renouncing Vodou in 1941.

Thousands of Vodou followers were lynched and hundreds of symbolic spaces destroyed in what became the most violent attack in Haiti鈥檚 history against the religion, according to journalist Herbert Nerette.

FILE - Vodou pilgrims gather round a cross during the Saint George celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. Shunned publicly by politicians and intellectuals for centuries, Vodou is transforming into a more powerful and accepted religion across Haiti, where its believers were once persecuted. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

Vodou pilgrims gather round a cross during the Saint George celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

But Vodou persisted. When Fran莽ois Duvalier became president in 1957, he politicized the religion during his dictatorship, appointing certain oungans as its representatives, Hurbon wrote.

By 2003, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Salesian priest who became Haiti鈥檚 first democratically elected president, recognized Vodou as one of Haiti鈥檚 official religions.

Despite the formal recognition, Vodou remains shunned by some Haitians.

鈥淲hen you say you are a Vodouist, they stigmatize you,鈥 said Kadel Bazile, a 42-year-old civil engineer.

Until recently, Bazile was a practicing Catholic. But when he lost his job and his wife left him nearly two years ago, a friend suggested he try Vodou.

鈥淲hat I find here is spirituality and fraternity. Being here is like being with family,鈥 he said while attending a May 1 ceremony to honor Kouzen Zaka, the lwa of harvest.

FILE - A child stands with Vodou pilgrims during a Mass marking the feast day of agriculture and work, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 1, 2024. Vodou was at the root of the revolution that led Haiti to become the world鈥檚 first free Black republic in 1804, a religion born in West Africa and brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)
A child stands with Vodou pilgrims during a Mass, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph, File)
FILE - A dove takes flight as people attend the St. George vodou celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. Hundreds of Haitians flocked to the hill for the annual celebration of St. George, a Christian martyr who was believed to be a Roman soldier and is revered by both Catholics and Vodouists. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)
A dove takes flight as people attend the St. George vodou celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

He identifies the most with Erzulie Dantor, the divinity of love represented by a Black Madonna with scars on her right cheek.

鈥淭hat is the spirit who lives in me,鈥 he said. 鈥淪he is going to protect me.鈥

As the ceremony started, Bazile smiled and moved to the beat of the drums while dancers twirled nearby, their long earrings swaying to the rhythm.

Vodou is attracting more believers given the surge in gang violence and government inaction, said Cecil Elien Isac, a 4th-generation oungan.

FILE - A Vodouist clad in white invokes a gede spirit during the Saint George celebration, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. Shunned publicly by politicians and intellectuals for centuries, Vodou is transforming into a more powerful and accepted religion across Haiti, where its believers were once persecuted. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

A Vodouist clad in white invokes a gede spirit during the Saint George celebration, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

鈥淲henever the community has a big problem, they come here, because there is no justice in Haiti. You find it in the ancestral spirits,鈥 he said.

When Isac opened his temple years ago in Port-au-Prince, about eight families in the area became members. Now he counts more than 4,000, in Haiti and abroad.

鈥淲e have a group of intellectuals who have joined,鈥 he said. 鈥淏efore, it was people who couldn鈥檛 read or write. Now it has more visibility.鈥

Credited with that turnaround are thinkers like Jean Price-Mars, whose 1928 book, 鈥淭hus Spoke the Uncle,鈥 visualized Vodou as a religion, 鈥渨ithout making the Haitian elites blush,鈥 wrote sociologist Lewis Ampidu Clorm茅us.

鈥淯ntil the 1920s, Haitian Vodou was generally regarded as a string of superstitions, witchcraft and ritual cannibalism,鈥 Clorm茅us wrote. 鈥淭alking about Vodou constituted a shame for Haitian intellectuals.鈥

Vodou has since become a key ingredient in Haiti鈥檚 rich cultural scene, inspiring music, art, writing and dance.

It鈥檚 unknown how many people currently practice Vodou in Haiti, but there鈥檚 a popular saying: 鈥淗aiti is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% Vodou.鈥

FILE - A Voudist clad in yellow, a color associated with the power of light, poses for a photo during the Saint George celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. It鈥檚 unknown how many people currently practice Vodou in Haiti, but there鈥檚 a popular saying: 鈥淗aiti is 70% Catholic, 30% Protestant and 100% Vodou.鈥 (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

A Voudist clad in yellow, a color associated with the power of light, poses for a photo during the Saint George celebration in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 24, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa, File)

Vodou also has countless lwas, although Ogou Je Wouj 鈥 the god of red eyes 鈥 has grown more significant to Haitians given the lack of security in the country, said Erol Josu茅, a singer, oungan and director of Haiti鈥檚 National Bureau of Ethnology.

Ogou Je Wouj is a manifestation of the god of war and is believed to wield a machete.

鈥淭hey want power in their body and in their mind,鈥 Josu茅 said of those who seek the god.

While spirits infuse believers with energy and hope, Vodou priests warn they don鈥檛 perform miracles.

鈥淲e鈥檙e praying, but we鈥檙e also taking precautions,鈥 Isac said. 鈥淭here are a lot of lwas to protect you from kidnapping, but if you walk through certain areas, no lwa is going to protect you.鈥

On a recent afternoon, hundreds of Haitians gathered on a steep hill and squeezed into a small church to celebrate St. George, a Christian martyr believed to be a Roman soldier revered by Catholics and Vodouists alike.

They offered him money and prayers in hopes they would make it through Haiti鈥檚 deepening crisis.

鈥淚t鈥檚 very important to be here,鈥 said Herv茅 Hyppolite, a chef who practices Christianity and Vodou. 鈥淵ou find force, courage and also protection.鈥

Surrounding him was a sea of people clad in khaki and red, the saint鈥檚 colors. Some held candles as a handful of women danced nearby,

鈥淪t. George!鈥 the priest leading the celebration yelled. The crowd shouted in response, 鈥淲e need you!鈥

Josu茅, the singer and oungan, noted that some young people becoming Vodouists are trying to change traditional prayers or certain practices, but he said oungans and mambos are not embracing the push.

鈥淲e make them understand that those spirits are a symbol of resistance of the Haitian nation,鈥 he said. 鈥淭here鈥檚 a lot of substance in Vodou that can lead to a renaissance of Haiti.鈥

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Associated Press reporter Evens Sanon contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP鈥檚 with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.