International News

Haitian Catholics Lament Assassination of President But Hope for Best

A nun prays during Mass at a church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 11, 2021, following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse July 7. (Photo: CNS/Ricardo Arduengo, Reuters)

WINDSOR TERRACE — Haiti never leaves the hearts of its citizens now living in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

These parishioners and clergy have urgently invited prayer from fellow Catholics as their Caribbean homeland faced multiple calamities: poverty, earthquakes, hurricanes, persistent urban gang violence, and the lack of COVID-19 vaccines.

[Related: Diocese of Brooklyn ‘Praying That Calm and Peace Will Win Out’ After Assassination of Haiti’s President]

Topping the list now is the July 7 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, which prompted renewed pleas for peace and prayer for the long-suffering island nation.

A joint statement from Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Guy Sansaricq, a native of Haiti, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio came on the day of the assassination. They wrote that the attack “sent shockwaves throughout the world and threatens to further escalate the turmoil that has plagued Haiti for some time now.”

They added, “We join with the many Haitian American Catholics who call our Diocese in Brooklyn and Queens home in praying that calm and peace will win out during this distressing time. We know the uncertainty of what may happen in their ancestral homeland is weighing heavy on their hearts and minds. We ask the Lord to bring them comfort during this difficult time.”

Bishop Sansaricq also penned an urgent message in his role as director of the Brooklyn-based National Center of the Haitian Apostolate. In it, he said, “Prayer leads into the ways of peace, justice, and real progress.”

“A country,” he added, “is not built on bloodshed but on unity, collaboration, and brotherhood. May the sane progressive organizations of the country gather as soon as possible to indicate the provisory and then permanent resolutions for the national uplifting of the nation. These are my most sincere vows and prayers for a new Haiti where life will be pleasant.”   

Era of Terrorism

In a July 8 interview, Bishop Sansaricq recounted how the Moïse presidency became known for corruption, chaos, plus its complacency in the face of the rise in urban gang violence. Law enforcement’s inability to contain the thugs spawned the illicit industries of kidnapping for ransom and highway robbery.

“His term had expired, but he persisted to remain in power,” Bishop Sansaricq said of Moïse. “Another election did not take place. He was considered unconstitutional by most people.

“Therefore, this was an era of terrorism. This was kind of chilling for the country because no one would want to invest or be involved in any form of commerce. At any time, they could be forced to give up all of their money, or otherwise, be killed.”

Still, Bishop Sansaricq said Moïse, 53, should not have been killed, nor should his wife, Martine, have been severely wounded in the gunfire.

“It’s bloodshed,” he said, “but our country must not and does not honor those who shed blood.” 

‘No One is Happy About This’

Bishop Sansaricq estimated there are more than 100,000 Haitians (possibly close to 200,000) in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Their smartphones were abuzz the morning of July 7 upon learning that a heavily-armed squad of gunmen attacked the president’s home in Pétion-Ville, an upscale suburb of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

Ismael Cossogue, who was born in Haiti, but now works as a maintenance technician at St. Pius X Parish in Rosedale, Queens, also serves in the U.S. Army Reserve, so he understands tactical maneuvers and weapons.

Cossogue, who visited family and friends in Haiti two months ago, said he has police buddies back home who contacted him Wednesday and described how the attackers struck with precision and ferocity.

“They were commandos — very professional,” Cossogue said.

Security officials said later that at least 28 “foreigners” perpetrated the attack. Most were arrested, but a few died in shootouts with police in Port-au-Prince or its suburbs. Police said most were former members of Colombia’s military, although two were Haitian-born residents of Florida. 

On Sunday, July 11, it was reported that Haitian security officials arrested a Haitian-born doctor who has lived 20 years in Florida. The reports stated officials suspect Dr. Christian Emmanuel Sanon, arrested in Haiti, was the ringleader in the assault on the president’s home.

Meanwhile, speculation still raged about who might be involved in the deadly conspiracy. Cossogue said many people in Haiti heard that Moïse’s bodyguards did not resist the commandos, raising questions about whether they were complicit, or duped into thinking the gunmen had clearance.

And despite widespread distaste for Moïse, Cossogue said the assassination frightened everyone.

“No one is happy about this,” he added. “They don’t take it like this is a simple thing. Because, if this could happen to a president, everybody does not feel safe.”

‘A Better Day is Coming’

Patricia Brintle of Queens operates the non-profit charity “From Here to Haiti,” which raises money to repair Catholic churches in rural areas of her native country.

She said some Haitians avoid contact with government scrutiny forces by not speaking openly about current events or political activity, and they often ignore news reports.

This mentality, she explained, is a legacy of the totalitarian control wielded by the late president François “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957 to 1971. His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, continued the despotic control as president through 1986.

So, with the break of dawn on Wednesday, some Haitians texted Brintle for confirmation of the assassination rumors instead of checking with each other or tuning into the news. Some said via text they could still hear continuous gunfire coming from Pétion-Ville.

“It has settled down a bit,” Brintle said the day after the assassination. “Everybody knows that the president has passed. And everybody knows that the prime minister is in charge. But they are not waiting to be told there is martial law or a curfew. Everybody is just staying home.”

Meanwhile, Brintle said she expected the political turmoil would hamper her organization’s efforts to finish projects in the countryside.

“It is going to slow us down tremendously,” she said. As an example, she noted a church that needs a new roof.

“That’s going to stop,” she said, “because the materials and supplies we purchased are in Port-au-Prince, and nobody’s going to Port-au-Prince. I’m going to need wood. I’m going to need roofing sheets. And I don’t know when the store is going to be open because all the stores are closed right now.

“In addition to that, when they do open up — as always happens — everything is going to go up in price. So, something that was costing $15, now it’s now going to $20-$25. It’s a supply-and-demand thing.”

Brintle predicted, however, that Haitians would emerge from the latest turmoil as they often do — with joy inspired by their faith. The Pew Research Center has estimated that 50-60% of Haiti’s 11.40 million people are Catholic.

“It’s never hard being a Catholic in Haiti,” she said. “Haitians are very, very religious. No matter what, they will always look at the bright side of things. And even if something bad happens, they will look at it as God’s will, and [that] a better day is coming.

Father Gerald Dumont, also from Haiti, voiced a similar outlook. He is parochial vicar for St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise Parish in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. He compared Haiti’s ongoing turmoil to Genesis 45 when Joseph encounters his brothers years after they sold him into Egyptian slavery because they were jealous of their father’s love for him. But Joseph became a wealthy and influential advisor to the pharaoh, which enabled him to help his brothers survive a devastating famine.

“When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, it was for forgiveness and reconciliation,” Father Dumont said. “So out of that evil something good did come about.

“God does wonders beyond what we could ever think or expect. But we must have faith in God, and never let anything be a stumbling block to our faith.”