PORT-AU-PRINCE (AP) — School teacher Darlene Derosier lost her home in the 2010 earthquake that devastated her country Haiti. Her husband died a month later after suffering what she said was emotional trauma from the quake.
She and her two daughters now live in tents outside the capital Port-au-Prince surrounded by thousands of others made homeless and desperate by the disaster.
What's helped pull her through all the grief, she said, has been her faith — but not of the Catholic, Protestant or even Voodoo variety that have predominated in this country. Instead, she's converted to a new religion here, Islam, and out of cinderblocks and plywood she built a small neighborhood mosque where some 60 Muslims pray daily.
Hymns and mosques
Islam has won a growing number of followers in this impoverished country, especially after the catastrophe two years ago that killed some 300,000 people and left millions homeless.
A capital where church attendance is so prevalent that the streets echo with Christian hymns on Sundays now has at least five mosques, a Muslim parliament member and a nightly local television program devoted to Islam.
The disaster drew in aid groups from around the world, including Islamic Relief USA, which built 200 shelters and a secondary school with 20 classrooms.
“After the earthquake we had a lot of people join,” said Robert Dupuy, an imam or Islamic spiritual leader in the capital. “We were organized. We had space in the mosques to receive people and food to feed them.”
Derosier, 43, said she was drawn to the religion's preaching of self-discipline, emphasis on education and attention to cleanliness. The constant washing, she said, helps her and other Muslims avoid cholera, the waterborne illness that health officials say has sickened nearly 600,000 people and killed more than 7,500 since surfacing after the quake.
In part, the Muslim community's growth can be attributed to the return of expatriates who adopted the faith in the U.S., said Kishner Billy, owner of the island's Telemax TV station and host of the nightly program Haiti Islam.
Some Haitian Muslims belong to the Nation of Islam. Some local members converted while serving time in U.S. prisons before being deported back to Haiti. The group's leader, Louis Farrakhan, visited the country for the first time last year.
Billy and some others believe that Islam's Haitian past goes back before the country's independence in 1804 and that a Jamaican slave and Voodoo priest named Boukman who led the slave revolt that ousted French colonizers was actually a Muslim.
“Islam is coming back to Haiti to stay,” said Billy, who says he converted from Christianity 20 years ago. “Future generations, my sons and daughters, will speak about Islam.”
There are no firm statistics on the number of Muslims in Haiti, just as there are no reliable figures for many things in the country, including Port-au-Prince's exact population.
A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center on the world's Muslim population estimated that Haiti had about 2,000 devotees. Islamic leaders in the country insist the figure is much higher and growing.
Islam is hardly unknown in the Caribbean; countries such as Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname and Guyana have significant Muslim populations. Many of those nations have strong roots in countries such as India and Indonesia where Islam is widespread.
The ancestors of Haitians, by contrast, were brought largely from non-Muslim areas of Africa. Haiti's French colonial rulers also imported their Christian beliefs. The decision to convert has made some targets.
The Haitian government does not recognize Islam as an official religion nor does it honor Muslim marriages. Wearing the skullcaps or flowing head scarves typical of the religion can draw stares and finger-pointing. Derosier said her neighbors gossip that she's evil.
Voodoo, a blend of West African religions created by slaves during the colonial period, has long been a popular faith in the country, with elements followed even by some of the 85 percent of the population who claim Christian beliefs. Voodoo was once so commonly embraced that the notorious dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier used it to terrify and control the masses.
Most Christian Haitians identify themselves as Roman Catholics. A priest, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president in 1990 by opposing the dictatorship that continued with Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.