Mohammed's religion finds a place in Haiti

June 13, 2002 Posted: 6:47 PM EDT (2247 GMT)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- Tucked away on a
corner of the Haitian capital's dusty, congested
Delmas Road, a modest white building bears a curious
sign, painstakingly stenciled in green Western and
Arabic script.

"Mosquee Al-Fatiha," it reads. "Communaute Musulmane

An attendant splashing water on the ground greets a
visitor who approaches the gate. "As-salaam aleikum
[peace be upon you]," he says, breaking into a smile.
"Welcome to the mosque."

Haiti, the Caribbean nation closely associated with
the African-derived faith of voodoo, is home to a
small but growing community of Muslims. Two Islamic
centers in the capital of Port-au-Prince are among
nearly a dozen around the country started by those who
have converted to the faith.

Officials with the major Islamic groups estimate there
are between 4,000 and 5,000 Muslims in Haiti, a nation
of about 8 million people.

In the lanes of the historic Carrefour-Feuilles
quarter, a neighborhood that snakes up the mountains
surrounding Port-au-Prince, a plangent, timeless sound

Among the market women haggling over prices while
portable radios blare popular Haitian "compas" music,
the muezzin's call to prayer goes forth from a new
Islamic masjeed, or prayer center.

"Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar Allahu Akbar, Allahu
Akbar, La ilaha ila Allah," -- "God is greater, God is
greater, there is no god but God."

Haiti is about 80 percent Catholic and 20 percent
Protestant, according to State Department figures,
while some 85 percent of its people regularly practice
Muslims noticeable in cities

But followers of Islam have recently stepped into the
public eye. Muslim men distinctive in their kufi
headwear and finely groomed beards, and women in
traditional scarves, are now seen on the streets of
several cities.

Nawoon Marcellus, who comes from the northern city of
San Raphael, recently became the first Muslim elected
to the Chamber of Deputies, Haiti's lower house of

"I returned to Haiti in 1985 just to preach Islam,"
said Abdul Al-Ali, the Delmas mosque's white-bearded,
commanding imam, or spiritual leader. "I converted
while I was in Canada and we bought the space for the
mosque in 1993."

"Haitians would like to have the truth and Islam will
bring it to them. If we follow Allah, peace be upon
him, I think things can change."

In impoverished Haiti, beset by a faltering economy,
malnutrition, political violence and a two-year-old
electoral dispute that has led to a freeze on $500
million of international aid, some converts find the
attention Islam devotes to charity and social justice
particularly appealing.

"If you see someone who is in need, the ones who need
help, whether it's education, money or what have you,
we Haitians as a whole tend to be very generous in
helping with one another," said Racin Ganga, the imam
of the Carrefour Feuilles center, who attended college
and was introduced to Islam in New York.

"Those who don't have anything tend to help out. It is
in some way inborn to us as Haitians, as well as
Muslims, to help out. So that principle of
responsibility, of helping those less fortunate,
resonated very well."

Yacine Khelladi, an Algerian economist who has
conducted an informal survey of the religion in Haiti,
said in its idealized form, Islam could address many
of Haiti's needs, including social justice, literacy
and a sense of community.

"It even regulates business, land disputes, banking
and other things -- all of which could be perceived as
attractive in Haiti as an alternative model," Khelladi
Inspiring revisionist history

The study of Islam has also resulted in some
provocative new theories about Haitian history,
including a revisionist view of Boukman, a rebel slave
who inspired other slaves to rise up against their
colonial masters.

"Boukman was never a voodoo priest, like they say; he
was a Muslim," said Samaki Foussoyni, a worshiper at
the Delmas mosque.

"When they describe his name, Boukman, in English, as
he was from Jamaica, they are really describing 'book
man,' because of the book he was always reading, which
the French here in Haiti always referred to as an
"upside-down" book," Foussoyni said.

"They described it as such because it was the Koran,
which you read left to right. When they say they had a
voodoo ceremony at Bois Cayman, where Boukman lived,
it was in fact 'Bwa Kay Imam,' or 'the woods of the
house of the imam' in Creole."

Although the mosques are locally maintained and
receive no assistance from Islamic charities abroad,
the nascent faith got an international boost from the
U.S.-led military force that entered Haiti in 1994 to
restore exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to

"The Pakistani and Bangladeshi soldiers came to our
mosque to pray and enjoy our faith and they encouraged
us with this belief," Al-Ali said.

Conscious of their status as outsiders in overtly
voodoo and Catholic Haiti, a nation that endured
decades of dictatorship and brutal military
repression, Muslims are quick to stress the peaceful
nature of their faith and to distance themselves from
the September 11 attacks on the United States.

"Allah says that if a man kills another man it is as
if he has killed all humanity," said Racin Ganga. "The
people who did what they did in New York, they are not
even human. Islamic people should use the weapon of
their love, because violence, as we've seen here in
Haiti, will not take us anywhere."

Copyright 2002 Reuters. 


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