Islam's inroads in land of Voodoo and Christianity

By Trenton Daniel

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10 2012 10:20 a.m. MDT

In this Sept. 28, 2012 photo, Darlene Derosier, 43, a Muslim, posts a how-to sign on the Islamic tradition of washing parts of the body in preparation for prayer at the Al-Fattah Mosque in Gressier, Haiti. Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished country, especially after the catastrophic earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands and left millions more homeless. Derosier said she was drawn to the religion's preaching of self-discipline, emphasis on education and attention to cleanliness. The constant washing, she said, helps her and other Muslims avoid cholera, the waterborne illness that health officials say has sickened hundreds of thousands and killed thousands since surfacing after the quake.

Dieu Nalio Chery, Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — School teacher Darlene Derosier lost her home in the 2010 earthquake that devastated her country. Her husband died a month later after suffering what she said was emotional trauma from the quake. She and her two daughters now live in tents outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, surrounded by thousands of others made homeless and desperate by the disaster.

What's helped pull her through all the grief, she said, has been her faith, but not of the Catholic, Protestant or even Voodoo variety that have predominated in this island country. Instead, she's converted to a new religion here, Islam, and built a small neighborhood mosque out of cinderblocks and plywood, where some 60 Muslims pray daily.

Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished country, especially after the catastrophe two years ago that killed some 300,000 people and left millions more homeless. A capital where church attendance is so prevalent that the streets echo with Christian hymns on Sundays now has at least five mosques, a Muslim parliament member and a nightly local television program devoted to Islam.

The disaster drew in aid groups from around the world, including Islamic Relief USA, which built 200 shelters and a secondary school with 20 classrooms.

"After the earthquake we had a lot of people join," said Robert Dupuy, an imam or Islamic spiritual leader in the capital. "We were organized. We had space in the mosques to receive people and food to feed them."

Derosier said she was drawn to the religion's preaching of self-discipline, emphasis on education and attention to cleanliness. The constant washing, she said, helps her and other Muslims avoid cholera, the waterborne illness that health officials say has sickened nearly 600,000 people and killed more than 7,500 others since surfacing after the quake.

"This is a victory for me," the 43-year-old woman said about her post-quake conversion. The former Protestant spoke in the tent-filled courtyard of her home, her face framed by a clean, black head scarf. "It's a victory that I received peace and found guidance."

In part, the Muslim community's growth can be attributed to the return of expatriates who adopted the faith in the U.S., said Kishner Billy, owner of the island's Telemax TV station and host of the nightly program "Haiti Islam."

Billy and some others believe that Islam's Haitian past goes back before the country's independence in 1804, and that a Jamaican slave and Voodoo priest named Boukman who led the slave revolt that ousted French colonizers was actually a Muslim.

"Islam is coming back to Haiti to stay," said Billy, who says he converted from Christianity 20 years ago. "Future generations, my sons and daughters, will speak about Islam."

There are no firm statistics on the number of Muslims in Haiti, just as there are no reliable figures for many things in the country, including Port-au-Prince's exact population.

A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center on the world's Muslim population estimated that Haiti had about 2,000 devotees. Islamic leaders in the country insist the figure is much higher and growing.

Islam is hardly unknown in the Caribbean; countries such as Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname and Guyana have significant Muslim populations. Many of those nations have strong roots in countries such as India and Indonesia where Islam is widespread.

The ancestors of Haitians, by contrast, were brought largely from non-Muslim areas of Africa. Haiti's French colonial rulers also imported their Christian beliefs.

The recent growth of Islam, as well as other new religions, shows Haiti is modernizing and becoming more pluralistic, said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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