An elderly peasant woman known as Zanzolite was bludgeoned and hacked to death by a mob with clubs and machetes in the center of this village last month, authorities here said.
Zanzolite was accused by her killers, most of them fellow villagers, of keeping a secret supply of a deadly powder to poison her enemies, according to the Rev. Harry Kouwenberg, a Roman Catholic missionary in Damassins.
Andre Jean-Claude, mayor of this village of 6,000 in southwestern Haiti, said the sudden death by disease of a young boy on April 7 made villagers turn on Zanzolite and four other peasants whom they labeled "evildoers" and "poisoners." The crowd killed all five and tore down their houses.
The slayings here were part of a nationwide wave of attacks on practitioners of Haiti's African-rooted voodoo religion that began after deposed ruler Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier fled to France Feb. 7.
Ethnologists and voodoo leaders said about 100 voodoo believers have been killed since then, including many priests, or houngans.
Now voodoo leaders, faced with what they called the most severe persecution in more than three decades, are moving for the first time to form a national organization to defend their religion and expand its influence.
The first seeds of a voodoo league were planted at an unprecedented gathering of about 200 Haitian voodoo sympathizers, including its most venerable priests as well as foreign-trained social scientists, last Sunday at a temple in the village of Soucri in north-central Haiti.
"Even though voodoo is going through a bad time, the hope now is that believers can come out of it by drawing together to organize," said Max Paul, a German-trained anthropologist who heads Haiti's National Bureau of Ethnology.
The meeting was the first sign of a nascent cultural movement to stress Haiti's African heritage. It also brought the first expressions of anti-Americanism to be heard in the two-year grass-roots upheaval that deposed Duvalier.
It could usher in a prolonged religious conflict in this nation.
Voodoo beliefs, which arise from African origins more than 2,000 years old, center on a pantheon of supernatural deities who can be playful, conciliatory or cruel. Trances and possession by "spirits" are important in voodoo ritual.
Proponents said voodoo can heal illness and "restore peace and psychic harmony," in the words of Max Beauvoir, a houngan who is also a Cornell-trained biochemist. Haitians who fear it say it is vindictive and dangerous superstition.
Scholars estimated that at least 85 percent of Haitians participate in voodoo in some way, though many are nominally Christian. It is often said that Haiti is "80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant and 100 percent voodoo."
Duvalier's abrupt departure, ending more than 28 years of his family's repressive rule, uncapped many tensions that have seethed for decades below the surface in Haiti, including suspicions between Christians and voodoo believers.
Catholic and Protestant churches joined in the fight to oust Duvalier by carrying news of demonstrations on their radio networks and encouraging Christians to organize. As a result, the popularity of Christian churches soared.
Voodoo believers stayed on the sidelines, or actively backed Duvalier.
According to Franck Etienne, a writer who heads the Committee for the Defense of Haitian National Culture, many houngans were Ton-Tons Macoutes, members of Duvalier's much-feared paramilitary force.
After Feb. 7, vigilante gangs formed to attack Haitians associated with Duvalier, driving them from their jobs and sometimes killing them. The process became known as dechoukage, from a word in the Haitian Creole language that means "to root out."
But, Etienne said, "There was slippage. The dechoukage spread past the people linked to Duvalier to include anyone in voodoo."
Ethnologist Paul documented 62 killings of voodoo practitioners in three months. Evidence was gathered from local court documents and interviews of witnesses by three of his students who traveled throughout Haiti, Paul said.
Paul's list excludes Haitians murdered because they were said to be Duvalier supporters. All cases he detailed were voodoo believers accused in their villages of being "evildoers."
A reporter who came to Damassins to verify Paul's version of the events here found it to be substantially accurate. Paul's investigation has not yet covered the southwestern provincial capital of Jeremie, where Army commanders estimated that as many as 30 voodoo believers were killed.
Paul, as well as voodoo leaders and witnesses, reported that several hundred voodoo temples were looted, burned or torn down.
In some rural towns Catholic priests or Protestant ministers reportedly rounded up ritual objects for voodoo altars, such as congo drums or talismans, to prevent ceremonies.
Many voodoo priests had to pay off gangs to be spared from attacks. Antoine Justinee, a houngan from the northern town of Port-de-Paix who attended the Sunday meeting, said he paid a $50 protection fee, a huge sum in Haiti's impoverished countryside, to a local gang after his clothing store was sacked in March.
Voodoo leaders blamed top Christian clergymen for inciting rioters to assault them. Herard Simon, one of Haiti's most prominent houngans, called it a "well-arranged strategy" by the Catholic bishops to mobilize youth groups against voodoo.
Beauvoir charged that Haiti's government council, led by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, is "a savage dictatorship composed of the military and the Christian churches." The leaders said Christian radio stations summoned listeners to "root out" voodoo.
In several cases, however, Army soldiers and government officials intervened to save houngans who were being hunted. Last week Namphy said at a press conference that voodoo believers are "Haitians like any others and must be protected."
Nor do the vigilante gangs appear to have been religiously inspired. The gang that led the killings in Damassins, which called itself "The Steamroller," was described by villagers as including "all kinds" of Haitians.
"They are lying categorically. They are people of bad faith," said Catholic Bishop Alix Verrier of the voodoo leaders, in an interview.
Verrier said the church repeatedly has condemned vigilante violence. But he said that Haitian Catholics "cannot accept any mixture with voodoo. Catholic doctrine must remain pure."
At Radio Lumiere, Haiti's main evangelical Protestant station, director Emmanuel Blaise said, "We have to convert Haitians by peaceful means to get rid of voodoo. Our preachers say all the time on the air that if you are a Protestant you are close to God. If you are with voodoo you are with the devil."
U.S. diplomats here are concerned that voodoo believers associate Protestant churches with the United States because many missionaries are American. They fear a rise in anti-American feeling in rural areas.
A new round of hostilities began in early May when a mob armed with sticks and rocks attacked houngan Beauvoir's temple on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince in an attempt to drive him out of it.
Since February, Beauvoir, a U.S. citizen, has gathered signatures for a voodoo association with more than 5,000 members. His temple is equipped with both the statue of a serpent and a rainbow -- voodoo's central symbol -- and an IBM personal computer.
Beauvoir was holed up last week in his temple with more than 50 followers with rifles and kitchen knives, waiting to fend off new attacks.
Meanwhile, Sunday's meeting ended with demands to the government to revoke a 50-year-old law banning voodoo ceremonies and resolutions to set up a radio station and a clinic to research and administer voodoo healing.