Voodoo followers pack Haiti's largest cemetery for Day of theDead celebrations

Thursday, November 2, 2006

By STEVENSON JACOBS

The Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Bearing rum, flowers and candles, thousands of voodoo followers flocked to Haiti's largest cemetery on Wednesday to rouse sacred spirits and remember lost relatives in raucous Day of the Dead celebrations.

Followers passed beneath a crumbling archway adorned with a black skull-and-crossbone flag that read "Everyone is welcome." As dark rum flowed freely, they placed flowers and candles at the graves of relatives while revelers danced and sang to thumping music designed to awaken Baron Samedi, the god of the dead, and his mischievous offspring, Gede.

"I came to pour some rum, light my candles and call the dead," said Delis Charles, a 39-year-old voodoo priest, or houngan.

Two-thirds of Haiti's 8 million people are said to practice voodoo, a blend of Christian tenets and African religions brought over by slaves. In 2003, Haiti's government officially sanctioned the faith as a religion, allowing priests to legally perform baptisms and marriages.

This year's Day of the Dead celebrations come amid ongoing turmoil in the impoverished Caribbean nation, which is still struggling to recover from a bloody February 2004 revolt that toppled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

'Calling for peace'

"We're calling for peace now," Charles said, as followers danced and chanted around him in the huge municipal cemetery in Port-au-Prince's downtown.

Voodoo followers integrated some Christian rites into their practice before Haiti won independence from slave-holding France in 1804. The slaves, prohibited from practicing their African rites, disguised their gods in the trappings of Roman Catholic saints. The Catholic church frowns on voodoo and, in the 1940s, tried unsuccessfully to eradicate it.

Practitioners believe in a supreme god and spirits linking the human and the divine. Many believe their spirits will return to Africa when they die. The bodies of slaves were buried without ceremony.

Wednesday's festivities will continue into the night with rowdy, Carnival-like street parties that last until dawn.

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