Bishops warn Haiti at ‘critical junction,’ needs urgent help amid ‘unlivable situation’

Police officers take part in an operation on the surroundings of the National Penitentiary following a fire in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 14, 2024, as a powerful gang leader in Haiti has issued a threatening message aimed at political leaders who would take part in a still-unformed transition council for the impoverished country. (OSV News photo/Ralph Tedy Erol, Reuters)

(OSV News) — As violence and instability ravage Haiti, two U.S. bishops are urging awareness and action by the global community to assist Haitians in restoring peace.

“We’re at a critical junction,” Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami told OSV News. “It’s a time in which we hope against hope that the Haitian people will be able to resolve some of their differences, and start building back a society that is peaceful and that promotes justice for all citizens.”

“I urge our government and the international community actively to continue to seek ways to address the long-term challenges the country is facing,” said Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon, chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a March 15 statement. “This is an unlivable situation for the people of Haiti, where families are unable to provide basic necessities for their loved ones.”

An estimated 80% of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is currently under the control of armed gangs, a number of which recently began targeting state institutions, including prisons, police stations and the main international airport. The attacks were believed to be an effort to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who had traveled to Guyana and then Kenya, with troops from the latter nation set to be deployed as part of a now-paused United Nations peacekeeping mission. At least 4,000 inmates were freed by gangs, while scores have been reported killed and some 15,000 left homeless.

The U.S. Embassy has urged its citizens to leave Haiti as soon as possible, and the U.N. has relocated 267 nonessential staff to the neighboring Dominican Republic.

In February, Haitian Bishop Pierre-André Dumas of Anse-à-Veau and Miragoane sustained severe burns over most of his body in what may have been a deliberately set explosion. The injured bishop is now receiving treatment at a Miami-area hospital, where he is “making progress,” Archbishop Wenski told OSV News.

“When you go to see him, you have to get gowned up with everything, (including sterile) booties,” said the archbishop. “He’s in the trauma ICU of the (hospital’s) burn unit. He’s in good spirits (and) … communicates by phone and WhatsApp to his priests and people in his home diocese.”

Amid the violence, 4 million in Haiti are facing “acute food insecurity,” warned U.N. World Food Program director Jean-Martin Bauer March 12.

In his message, Bishop Zaidan — who expressed his “steadfast solidarity” with his “brother bishops and the people of Haiti” — especially commended what he called “the heroic efforts of Haitian and international aid workers, including our own Catholic Relief Services, who are working tirelessly to provide vitally necessary assistance to the people of Haiti.”

Bishop Zaidan also praised a U.S. pledge to provide $300 million toward the U.N.-backed Kenyan peacekeeping force; however, top U.S. Republican lawmakers have since blocked the funding.

Leaders from the Caribbean nation trade bloc Caricom, joined by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, met March 11 in Jamaica to forge a transitional presidential council, with Henry pledging to resign. The plan appeared to founder by midweek, although officials said March 15 the council would move forward.

Archbishop Wenski — who is fluent in Haitian Creole, and whose archdiocese is home to an extensive and historic Haitian expatriate community — criticized a move by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to bolster that state’s border security ahead of a possible influx of Haitian migrants.

“Haitians are not some type of an invasive species,” the archbishop said. “Right now, to deport people back to Haiti … is just like putting people back into a burning building.”

That tactic also risks violating the fundamental principle of non-refoulement, which under international human rights law — such as the U.N.’s refugee convention and protocol — provides that refugees cannot be expelled to territories where substantial threats to life or freedom exist.

“That’s been happening quite regularly for decades right now, at least in the case of Haitians,” said Archbishop Wenski. “Interdiction (of Haitians) on the high seas began in the 1970s and continues up to the present time.”

He added that at present, “The numbers (of Haitians) coming by sea have not been as significant as the numbers across the Texas border.”

Noting that Haiti’s gangs “come from the poorest neighborhoods” and “don’t really have the resources or the means to be as well-armed as they are,” Archbishop Wenski cited the strong possibility that foreign influence — particularly by transnational criminal gangs — could be actively working to destabilize Haiti.

“Some of that gang support could also be coming from these international drug cartels that are wreaking havoc in Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, et cetera,” said the archbishop. “If you draw a straight line from Colombia to Florida, that straight line passes through Haiti. … It’s a natural transshipment point for cocaine and other types of drugs coming out of there.”

Archbishop Wenski said Haiti has endured “several crosses, one after the other.”

The Caribbean nation has been plagued by multiple, sustained crises such as political instability, natural disasters, foreign intervention and international debt.

In July 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated; in April 2023, the head of the U.N. office in Haiti warned the nation was sliding into “a catastrophic spiral of violence.”

At the same time, Archbishop Wenski said, “violence is uncharacteristic of Haiti.”

Following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed some 220,000 and injured 300,000 people, Haitians “organized themselves into tent cities” and kept them “free of violence” as they awaited international aid, said the archbishop. “There was no looting, no rioting.”

In his statement, Bishop Zaidan echoed “Pope Francis in his expression of concern and support for the people of Haiti, and who recently invited us to pray for the people of this land through the intercession of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Patroness of Haiti that violence cease, and peace and reconciliation in the country be realized with the support of the international community.”


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