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U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti sparks ‘cautious optimism,’ call to conversion

People fleeing gang violence take shelter at a sports arena in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sept. 1, 2023. On Oct. 2, the U.N. Security Council authorized the deployment of an international security mission to aid Haiti's own police force in countering gang violence, which has spiraled out of control in recent months. Haiti has reported more than 3,000 homicides in 2023, and over 1,500 incidents of kidnapping for ransom. (OSV News photo/Ralph Tedy Erol, Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA (OSV News) — The United Nations’ decision to send a peacekeeping mission to Haiti is being met with “cautious optimism” by one U.S. archbishop — and by a call to conversion from a Haitian-born priest serving in Philadelphia.

On Oct. 2, the U.N. Security Council authorized the deployment of an international security mission to aid Haiti’s own police force in countering gang violence, which has spiraled out of control in recent months. Haiti has reported more than 3,000 homicides in 2023, and over 1,500 incidents of kidnapping for ransom.

Some 200,000 have fled their homes, leaving thousands of children unable to attend school. Sexual violence, including gang rape, has escalated against the nation’s women and girls.

Haiti has endured multiple, sustained crises such as political instability, natural disasters, foreign intervention and international debt. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with more than half of its population living below the World Bank’s poverty line, according to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

In July 2021, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. In April 2023, the head of the United Nations office in Haiti warned that the nation was sliding into “a catastrophic spiral of violence.”

The U.N. troops — requested by Haiti’s government and civil leaders, and led by Kenya — will be deployed for one year, with a review after nine months.

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, whose archdiocese is home to an extensive Haitian expatriate community, told OSV News that the mission has prompted both wariness and some relief.

“A lot of people are a bit skeptical that the United Nations or a foreign group would really come in and offer a durable solution,” said the archbishop, noting that a previous U.N. peacekeeping mission to Haiti — which lasted from 2004-2017, and was marred by both a sexual abuse scandal and a cholera outreak that killed almost 10,000 — “didn’t leave it better off.”

However, said Archbishop Wenski, “everybody is frustrated with the gangs, and everybody says we have to get rid of the gangs,” which have “a stranglehold” over the capital, Port-au-Prince, and are “causing a lot of deaths” while “disrupting the economy.”

“Some people are basically on the edge of starvation,” said the archbishop, who is fluent in Haitian Creole. “People are terrorized by gangs that either kidnapped them, raped them or killed them.”

“These are not just groups of juvenile or young adult delinquents,” he added. “These gangs are really part of an international cartel.”

Transnational drug trafficking and “increasingly greater numbers of powerful and sophisticated weapons” have made the gangs a formidable foe for law enforcement, said the archbishop.

Haitian native Father Eugène Almonor, a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate and chaplain of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Haitian Catholic community, told OSV News that Haiti’s governmental administration effectively “does not exist.”

As a result, “Haitian people try to live by themselves,” without expecting any support from authorities, said Father Almonor, who is in residence at St. William Parish in Philadelphia.

Right now, said Father Almonor, “the most important thing for anyone there in Haiti is to leave the country, to go away, to try to live in another place, because the situation is very, very difficult; very, very bad.”

His own family members in Haiti — whom he has not seen since 2019, and whom he contacts “almost every day” — have urged him not to visit out of grave concerns for his safety, he said.

At the same time, his priest friends in Haiti continue to “to pray, to go everywhere, to celebrate Mass, to visit sick people,” he said.

Asked by OSV News if his fellow priests in Haiti are afraid for their lives, Father Almonor responded, “I think as a person, yes. But as a priest, no.”

Although the U.N peacekeepers may provide some stability, the Haitian people ultimately need “to talk, to sit all together and to decide in what direction” they want their country to evolve, said Father Almonor.

That task involves cooperating with the grace of God, he added.

“Yes, we need the help of the Holy Spirit. … And the peace of God is … an eternal peace,” said Father Almonor. “But everyone in Haiti has to think about peace. And the peace that we need, we cannot find from heaven if we don’t sit together to try for this peace.”

The Haitian people have proven they can rebound from disaster, said Archbishop Wenski.

Following a 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people, Haitian people managed to avoid mass chaos, looting and violence, and instead set up refugee camps even “before the international community arrived with help,” he said.

“Haitians are capable of organizing themselves and solving their problems,” said Archbishop Wenski.

Father Almonor said Haitians can also rebound from this latest cycle of violence.

“We need to learn from this to be conscientious and to decide to do something, and to say enough is enough,” he said.

They will not be alone, said Father Almonor.

“Haiti is for God, and God wants to save Haiti, because God loves Haiti,” he said.

Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina

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