SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Despite the Jan. 24 release of six Catholic nuns and one other hostage in Haiti, observers say that the country’s most recent spiral of violence, which resulted in at least 5,000 murders and 2,500 kidnappings in 2023, is far from being resolved.
The nuns, members of the Congregation of Saint Anne, were on a minibus in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 19 when armed men intercepted the vehicle and took the group, including the niece of one of the nuns and the bus driver, to an undisclosed location, triggering global concern for the nuns’ fate.
On Jan. 21, Pope Francis mentioned the case during the Angelus prayer, appealing for their liberation.
“I pray for social harmony in the country and I ask everyone to put an end to the violence that is causing so much suffering to that dear population,” the pontiff said.
As days went by and the nuns remained in the hands of the criminals, the Haitian church increased its pressure on the Caribbean country’s authorities.
On Jan. 22, Archbishop Max Leroy Mésidor of Port-au-Prince and Father Morachel Bonhomme, a Salesian priest who heads the Conference of Religious of Haiti, released a statement in which they complained about the authorities’ “silence, which amounts to an attitude of contempt for the suffering of the people.”
“We call on the responsibility of the leaders and remind them of their moral duty to ensure the security and protection of the lives and property of all citizens,” the two clerics said.
Mésidor and Bonhomme also invited all Catholics for a day of prayers and vigils for the victims on Jan. 24.
According to Father Gilbert Peltrop, Secretary General of the Conference of Religious of Haiti, the criminals contacted the leaders of the Sisters of Saint Anne – a congregation founded in Québec in 1850 – shortly after they took control of the group of nuns and “asked for a large sum of money for their release.”
“The negotiations started slowly and with a lot of pressure. The last two days were decisive. We felt the desire of the kidnappers to release the victims as quickly as possible,” he told Crux.
In the late afternoon of Jan. 24, the criminals and the negotiators finally agreed on the amount to be paid.
“At the beginning of the evening they released them. It was a relief for everyone,” Peltrop said.
Peltrop affirmed that the young niece of one of the nuns had already been released on Monday evening without the payment of a ransom.
He said that in recent years, several Catholic personnel in Haiti have been the victims of similar kidnappings.
“The church is aware of the situation in which it is called to fulfill its mission of evangelization, and strives to deal with the risk of being devoured like lambs among wolves,” he said.
In 2021, for example, five priests and two nuns were held hostage by kidnappers for three weeks till they were freed. One year later, Italian Sister Luisa Dell’Orto was murdered during an armed attack in Port-au-Prince.
Safety concerns have been leading many Catholic groups to change their way of working, Bonhomme told Crux.
“At times it’s necessary to establish new working hours. At times, people need to abandon the place where they worked and look for a safer location. Some religious schools just can’t continue to operate,” he said.
Bonhomme said that some Catholic social works had to hire security staff in order to keep their activities.
Some groups had to leave the country. That was the case with a Brazilian inter-congregational mission, established in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, whose focus was to assist malnourished children and their mothers.
In January 2023, gang members invaded the building where the Brazilian nuns operated and stole all their equipment and their car. The mission was closed shortly after the incident.
The current wave of violence intensified in 2021 after the killing of late President Jovenel Moïse. He was facing the opposition of a wide range of politicians, but decided to extend his tenure for one year, something that created turmoil in the nation.
After his death, giant gangs took control of many zones in Haiti. Analysts estimate that at least three quarters of Port-au-Prince now are dominated by criminals.
In October, the United Nations approved the creation of a peacekeeping mission to be sent to Haiti. Kenya was appointed as the country in charge of it and should send 1,000 policemen to the Caribbean nation.
The deployment of police officers, however, was forbidden by a court decision in Kenya taken shortly after the announcement of the mission.
The case was taken to the High Court and on January 26 judge Chacha Mwita ruled that Kenya could only send officers abroad if a reciprocal arrangement took place with the host government. The Kenyan government declared it will appeal the decision.
While external help doesn’t come, Haitians keep living with the constant threat of robbery, kidnappings, rape, and killings.
“We’re Christian, so we strongly believe that things will be better. It’s impossible to continue living like this,” Bonhomme affirmed.