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Episcopal Church called to prayer for Haiti

Diocesan lay leaders stranded at conference site by post-election violence

[Episcopal News Service] In the midst of increasing violence in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince Dec. 9, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori assured that country of the Episcopal Church's concern for its citizens.

"Our prayers continue for the people of Haiti, particularly at this time of increased anxiety, uncertainty, and outbreaks of violence," Jefferts Schori said in a statement to Episcopal News Service. "May the Prince of Peace come speedily," she added, echoing the season of Advent.

The presiding bishop was due to spend Dec. 10-13 with the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti Dec. 10 - 13, but she cancelled her trip earlier in the week at the request of Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin.

The capital's Toussaint Louverture International Airport was closed due to the violence and at least one U.S. airline, American, has canceled flights in and out of Port-au-Prince.

Violence broke out in the country's earthquake-ravaged capital late on Dec. 8 shortly after Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council announced the results of Nov. 28's presidential election. The council said that Jude Celestin, the candidate backed by current president René Préval's party, and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, would advance to a Jan. 16 runoff presidential election.

The decision, based on the portion of votes received by each of the candidates, meant that well-known Haitian konpa or compas musician Michel "Sweet Micky'' Martelly did not make the cut. Manigat, a longtime opposition leader, received 31.37 percent of the vote; Célestin, former head of the government road building agency, 22.48 percent, and Martelly received 21.84 percent, election officials said.

They were the top three vote-getters in a field of 18 candidates in an election that was widely seen as chaotic at best. International election observers from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community said shortly after the election, however, that the process was fundamentally sound.

On Dec. 8, thousands of Martelly supporters and others took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas such as Petionville to protest the results. They burned Préval's party headquarters, set fire to vehicles and hundreds of tires, threw rocks and prompted United Nations peacekeeping forces to fire rubber bullets, tear gas and flash-bang grenades.

The New York Times reported Dec. 9 that the election council had agreed to rapidly recount the election results and would invite the top three vote-getters, as well as national and international election observers, to oversee the process.

Many Haitians, along with foreign nationals, reportedly barricaded themselves indoors to avoid the protests. Angela Galbreath, Episcopal Church-appointed missionary to the Haitian diocese, told ENS by telephone Dec. 9 that friends in Port-au-Prince told her of being attacked by a mob while trying to clear their street of the rocks that protestors found tempting to use as missiles.

Galbreath spoke to ENS from a hotel in Montrouis about two hours north and west of Port-au-Prince where many of the lay leaders and the clergy of the diocese who had gathered Dec. 5 for a four-day Episcopal CREDO conference were stranded because of the unrest. She and CREDO Managing Director William Craddock reported that many of Haiti's already nearly impassable roads were blocked by protestors, making travel unsafe.

"It's a rainy day so everyone is calmly sitting around discussing politics and how to improve the country so that this sort of thing doesn't happen again," she said.

The violence is "just depressing," she said, adding that the protestors "are so stressed; it's not just about the elections. It's about cholera and it's about Christmas this year and they can't celebrate that the way that they would like to celebrate."

Galbreath, who was appointed in August to be an assistant to the diocese's program that manages its partnerships with other Episcopal Church dioceses and congregations, said that consensus in the Montrouis discussions about the future of Haiti was that the country need to better educate its people.

"The big problem is that people aren't educated and so they have no critical-thinking skills to interpret what politicians say and so they can just swing with whatever tide is popular at the moment," she said.

Craddock, who also spoke to ENS from Montrouis, said that he and the 10-member conference faculty had the participants meet in small groups on the evening of Dec. 8 to discuss how they might commemorate the first anniversary of the Jan. 12 magnitude-7 earthquake.

"These people are really filled with hope … they're a very strong people," he said.

The conference was the fourth one CREDO has offered to the leaders of the Haitian diocese since the Jan. 12 earthquake and Craddock said he and faculty hopes that when all of the participants do leave Montrouis "they will leave not only with some resiliency and hope but also with some skills sets" that they can use back in their communities.

He added that the participants asked how the wider church might help them continue to recover and further develop their leadership skills. Craddock said that future such efforts, which are being explored, need to "embrace these people, their habits, their way of being here."

Duracin met with the conference earlier in the week and then returned to Port-au-Prince, Craddock and Galbreath said, but he was then unable to make a scheduled return trip to Montrouis on Dec. 8. Repeated ENS attempts to reach the bishop by phone resulted in a fast busy signal, usually indicative of transmission trouble.

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