Vijonet Déméro had little patience for the Haitian pastor who led his congregation into what proved to be a deadly confrontation with local gangs last week.
“Foolishly foolish action,” said Déméro, a Protestant leader and secretary general at Université INUFOCAD in Port-au-Prince, referencing Jesus’ words about the blind leading the blind. “For me, the pastor forgot his role as pastor. He is not the police.”
The pastor at the center of the controversy is Marcorel Zidor, also known as Pastor Marco, who leads the Evangelical Piscine de Bethesda church, in the northern suburb of Canaan.
On August 26, gang members opened fire, killing at least seven people with machine guns, as Zidor and members of his congregation approached the group, marching in armed protest.
Despite criticism from human rights groups and Christian leaders, and even acknowledging personal injury himself, Zidor has defended his actions.
“Ninety-five percent of my faithful followers were not hurt by bullets even though they were hit by them,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “Those who died are those who ran to take shelter at some houses. If they didn’t lose their faith, and if they had run in the same direction with the main crowd [the faithful ones], they wouldn’t be dead.”
Haiti’s department of foreign affairs and worship has since suspended the church’s license, noting that many of the victims’ relatives had showed up to Evangelical Piscine de Bethesda demanding answers and reparations. (The department also noted its commitment to religious freedom.)
Zidor’s protest comes at a time when churches in Western Haiti have struggled to keep their doors open. Congregations have cut back on Sunday services and Bible studies and canceled evening events.
“Some are drawn closer to God because they believe it is God only who can do something to take the pain away,” Samson Doreliens, a pastor of a 600-person church, recently told Baptist Press about his congregation. “Others are discouraged, questioning why God is letting all kinds of things happen to the country: violence, natural disasters, etc.”
The circumstances in Haiti are dire enough that even though Haitian theologian Andrikson Descolines considers Zidor a “religious zealot,” he empathizes with the pastor’s desire to take action when the authorities who are supposed to can’t or won’t.
“Hopeless people make hopeless decisions,” said Descolines, a professor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Port-au-Prince (STEP). “The pastor is a victim of the current situation that is prevalent in Haiti. … The members of his church are every day exposed as the prey and victims of gang members, and the government is doing nothing. He took the matter into his own hands and was trying to address it, based on his understanding of Scriptures.”
Descolines said he sees Zidor and his church’s confrontation as “neither brave nor foolish,” though the pastor didn’t think his action through.
Neither Déméro nor Descolines describe Zidor’s congregation as evangelical, but instead see it as syncretistic, combining Christian teaching and voodoo practices.
“I have been in Haiti for 49 years, and this is the first time I saw what just happened in the country,” said Descolines. “I never saw something like this, where a bunch of people armed with their faith and machetes tried to overpower gangs with automatic weapons.”
Days after the incident, the Haitian National Police announced it will open an investigation into those responsible for the massacre.
In a statement, Frantz Elbé, the director general of police, described how hundreds of people had amassed at the scene, many wearing uniforms and clothes bearing Zidor’s name. Elbé stated that the police created a security perimeter but failed to dissuade the crowd.
“The pastor’s followers really believed what he told them,” Francois Vicner told The New York Times. “He said they were bulletproof, that those who were wounded had no faith.”
In one video currently circulating among Haitian social media users, the gang’s leader, Jeff, interviews one of the kidnapped church members. She explains that she had been waiting for an update from the Biden parole program and had gone to church to pray and fast for a response when she ended up going out and joining the march to confront the gang.
As the police have struggled to push back against the strongholds that many gangs have in the country, some Haitians have joined civilian self-defense groups known as “Bwa Kale.”
“The church does not have the responsibility to attack the gang,” said Déméro. “It is the responsibility of the police to do so. In addition, the way they protest does not sound like protest. It sounds like an offensive attack on the gangs.”
Haiti’s security situation crumbled when UN peacekeepers left in 2019, David Shedd, a former CIA agent and executive adviser of VDI, a regional security consulting firm respected by American missionaries, told CT in 2021. Soon after, large numbers of Haitian National Police (HNP) officers defected, and wealthy Haitians colluded with gangs, hiring members for protection.
By November 2021, CT reported that “gangs in the Port-au-Prince area informally work together to delineate turf so as to avoid committing fratricide. They also help members avoid HNP checkpoints and seamlessly move around the city of about a million people. Gangs often keep kidnapping victims inside ungoverned parts of the city.”
“I don’t think there’s sufficient awareness of the vicious and enormous power that these gangs wield,” Shedd said then.
In the days since Zidor and his church’s confrontation with the gang, Descolines noted that there were “a lot of shootings in my area.” Yet he believes the church should continue to eschew violence.
“I cannot encourage people to behave the same way as gang members do,” he said. “The Bible encourages us to pray for our enemy and especially for their salvation. So ‘prayer’ is the first proper answer we can give to what is happening right now in Haiti. We need to keep our eyes on God and promote his love through our country, until those who are getting paid to manage the country properly do their job.”
Déméro, who formerly served as a Haiti representative for Bethany Christian Services, echoed this.
“Me, as a Christian, I pray. I raise the awareness of the prime minister and his ministers. I educate my people to make the difference, to act and serve differently; to understand that God is in control of the situation,” he said, referencing Exodus 14:14. “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”