A pastor has been making headlines in Haiti since a video emerged showing him swinging a child around by his hair as part of a ritual. The footage has sparked an outcry among Haitians, and a senator has taken up the case.
The video, which lasts six minutes and first emerged in August, shows a pastor tossing a small child in the air as people around him dance to music. No one in the room seems to react to the way he treats the child. According to several Observers in Haiti, the scene took place on August 9 in Delmas 48, a neighbourhood in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The text on the bottom of the six-minute video translates to "Wanted notice for this pastor".
“Parents see this pastor as a protector of their family”
This video was first shared online by people who were present at the scene, and was soon picked up by others. Someone released an unofficial wanted notice to try and find the pastor in question.
One of the people who saw the video was a Haitian senator, the aptly named Jean-Renel Sénatus. He decided to investigate the incident:
This man goes by the name of Pastor Berger Moderne [which translates to Pastor Modern Shepherd]. He is 32 years old and he created a congregation called “Lamé sélès” in creole [in English, the Celestial Army] that follows doctrine similar to the Pentecostal Church. In the video, he is mistreating the child because he claims that the child has an unidentified illness and that this ritual can heal him.
I launched a public appeal on the radio. I managed to make contact with the parents of this child and to speak with them. I was surprised to find out that they see this pastor as a protector of their family, even if they agreed that he had been acting in a violent manner.
However, they refused to file a complaint or to tell me if they had given him money to perform the ritual.
“The pastor has been making videos to say that I am wasting my time”
The pastor fled and is now in hiding. I asked the police to open an investigation to find him. The investigation is underway.
In the meantime, the pastor has been making videos that he shares online to mock me and to say that I should spend my time and my money building an orphanage for his church! [Editor’s note: In one of these videos, the pastor features the mother of the child from the original video. The mother claims that everything is ok and that the child's health is even improving].
In this video shared online by the pastor, the mother of the child seen in the viral video says that her child is fine and is, in fact, doing better since the pastor performed the ritual.
I often work on issues relating to children in Haiti. This is the first time that I’ve seen a pastor be so violent that said, we don’t even know if he is a legitimate pastor or just a crook. The problem is that the state doesn’t keep an eye on these religious groups, most of whom haven’t registered with the Ministry of Religion. These little churches end up like countries within our country where they do as they like.
France 24 contacted the Haitian Ministry of Religion, which claimed to have no knowledge of this church in Delmas 48 or of the video, even though a police investigation is underway.
“I attended strange rituals carried out by this church”
While the pastor himself seems to be in hiding, the church in Delmas 48 is still operating. One of our Observers in Port-au-Prince, Zéphirin Niepce, went to see it and says that unusual ceremonies are still being carried out there.
There were about 15 people. They made it clear to me that, since the incident, they have banned people from getting out their cellphones to film the ceremonies. The pastor is no longer there, but there is a woman who is replacing him. Before entering the church, all the congregants have to wash their hands with clairin. [Editor’s note: A spirit made in Haiti from sugar cane].
I saw the woman replacing the pastor put some clairin in her mouth and spill it on the faces of several other people. This religious group is very strange in all senses. Certain rituals looked very similar to voodoo to me. People were dancing in a strange manner while crying out “Long live Jesus” and “Down with Satan!” As we sometimes joke in Haiti, they looked like they had been taken over by “loas” [Editor’s note: supernatural spirits].
“Recently, another pastor said he was handing out a cure for HIV to his congregants”
It is hard to estimate the reach of churches like this in Haiti. There are no official numbers, especially as most of these churches never register with the Ministry of Religion. However, they have real, growing influence on the island. Back in 2010, in an interview with the French magazine Le Monde des Religions [The World of Religions], Laënnec Hurbon, a Haitian sociologist and writer who specialises in the relationship between religion, politics and culture in the Caribbean, explained how recent events had shaped the country’s religious landscape.
After the earthquake on January 12, 2010, the collapse of the state became a reality in the eyes of Haitian society. Since then, religious groups, including Pentecostal churches and religious groups known as the Celestial Army, have dominated public space, especially in the shanty towns where more than a million people live in terrible conditions.
Cases of abuse are rampant within this church, according to Aristilde Deslande, a journalist who specialises in religion for the Haitian website Netalkole.
The churches known by the name the “Celestial Army” don’t really have an administrative structure. The pastor rules over everything. Sometimes, he is sleeping with members of his congregation, many of whom are women. His congregants will do anything for him without thought.
Recently, there was a pastor at another church, called L’Église de Dieu Les Envoyés, who said he had created a cure for HIV made from aloe vera, milk, toothpaste, bugs and bits of matches. He gave this “cure” to 68 members of his congregation who he claimed had the virus… though we have no way of knowing if they were really infected!
In 2016, there were about 28,000 churches registered in Haiti, according to the Ministry of Religion. However, it is likely that there are many more congregations similar to the embattled pastor’s that go under the radar.