Priest’s Ouster Silences Haiti’s Voice of the Poor

Associated Press

The expulsion of a radical slum priest from his ecclesiastic order has silenced Haiti’s most influential voice for the rights of the nation’s poor.

In expelling Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the conservative Salesian Order accused the populist Roman Catholic cleric of fomenting class warfare, calling him a “protagonist of destabilization.”

His ouster was announced Dec. 15 in a statement from Rome. Although Aristide remains a priest, he cannot officiate at Mass or deliver sermons over church radio.

“He has been neutralized,” said sociologist Franklyn Midi.


Outspoken Campaigner

Aristide, 35, a Salesian priest since 1975, has been one of the most outspoken campaigners for social justice in a country ruled for nearly its entire 184-year existence by dictators.

He has escaped at least three attempts on his life, including a Sept. 11 attack at his St. Jean Bosco Church in a Port-au-Prince slum in which thugs armed with machetes, guns, clubs and spears killed 12 people and wounded at least 70 others.

One week later, rank-and-file soldiers overthrew Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy in a coup that put Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril in power. Coup leaders said they wanted democratic reforms and an end to state-sponsored violence, citing the church massacre as an example.

Salesian officials expelled Aristide after he failed to obey their order to leave Haiti by Oct. 17 and assume a new post in Canada.

Popular Protests

Two previous transfer orders were rescinded because of popular protests. Thousands protested in support of Aristide for several days in October, but there were no immediate demonstrations after the expulsion.

Aristide, who has been seen in public only once since the church massacre, has made no public statement and has declined requests for interviews. But friends say his morale is excellent and he might appeal the church decision.

Despite its condemnation of military brutality and human-rights abuses in Haiti, the Catholic hierarchy has long opposed Aristide’s political proselytizing of the poor.

A proponent of liberation theology, which advocates church involvement in a political struggle by the poor against social injustice, Aristide preaches “active nonviolence.” He urges a “real revolution” to bring democracy to Haiti, but does not specifically propose an armed uprising.

Fire and Brimstone

His pulpit style is that of a fire-and-brimstone preacher whose leading questions prompt quick responses from the congregation. The sermons were broadcast nationwide and earned Aristide a huge following among the urban poor and the rural peasantry, who call the bespectacled ascetic their “prophet.”

Although civic leaders and many priests applauded Aristide’s crusade, the church hierarchy apparently feared the possible consequences of radicalizing the masses.

“The upper and middle classes, of course, have heaved a sigh of relief,” Midi said of Aristide’s ouster. “They are uncomfortable when the voice of the poor is raised too high.”

“What they have not understood is that Aristide has contained the resentment of the impoverished masses by giving it a religious form,” Midi added. “He has not sent them into the streets but drawn them into the church.”

Bishops Were Worried

A Salesian spokesman in Rome, Father Joseph Aubrey, told the Voice of America that the expulsion was ordered because Haitian “bishops worried about the results of Aristide’s action.”

But Father Serge Miot, secretary of Haitian Bishops Council, denied that the council had asked the Salesians to expel Aristide.

The effective silencing of Aristide coincides with a move by Avril to tighten army discipline after a purported Oct. 14 coup attempt. Since then, the government has imprisoned or discharged dozens of soldiers for alleged insubordination.

Leftist politicians have accused the government of clamping down on the most progressive element in the army--soldiers angered by the slow progress in bringing about the democratic reforms Avril promised when he became president.

Had Become a Symbol

It is not known what role, if any, the government had in Aristide’s ouster; but to some, the priest has become a symbol of the democratic struggle.

“Aristide was discharged from his religious order in the same way that soldiers faithful to the Sept. 17 reform movement have been discharged from the army,” said Paul Dejean, a Haitian author and social worker, referring to those who participated in the coup to gain democratic reforms.

“People who believe in the Gospel values of liberation, liberty and justice are penalized and punished,” he said.