The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Haiti’s evangelical leaders feel pressure after one of their own arrested in president’s killing

A vendor sells pastries as churchgoers leave the Tabernacle of Glory in Port-au-Prince on July 25. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the days after the assassination of Haiti’s president this month, a popular Haitian radio talk show host took to the airwaves, blasting pastors inside the nation’s rapidly growing evangelical movement he claimed had been complicit in the brazen attack.

Soon, Roberde Celine suggested, police would be knocking on their doors: “There is a risk that [those of you who knew about the plan] will sweat in the national penitentiary.”

Haiti’s Protestant preachers, whose followers overtook Catholics two decades ago as the nation’s single largest religious group, were some of Jovenel Moïse’s most vocal opponents. Now their stance against the president — and the detention of one of their own as an alleged central figure in the plot to kill him — has sparked what they say is a dangerous backlash.

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Moïse’s supporters are demanding church leaders shed light on their dealings with Christian Emmanuel Sanon, the 63-year-old Haitian American pastor being held by authorities in Moïse’s killing on July 7. Evangelical leaders, who before the president’s death denounced him as a dictator in the making, are now distancing themselves from Sanon. They describe the Haitian American as an outsider who made a number of false claims, including that he was an “emissary” sent by the U.S. government to “save Haiti.”

Sanon, who remains in custody, could not be reached for comment. The Washington Post could not identify a lawyer for him.

One thing is certain: In social media posts and pundits’ comments, evangelical leaders are being portrayed by Moïse loyalists as traitors to the nation. The outcry, analysts say, is suggestive of the tense internal dynamics that have turned this impoverished Caribbean nation into a powder keg in the days since the assassination, and risks deepening social divisions and escalating violence in the days and weeks ahead.

The angry rhetoric, some fear, could provoke physical attacks. Vague claims by Moïse’s family that “oligarchs” were behind the president’s killing have led some of the late leader’s backers to burn and loot businesses owned by wealthy elites seen by many as his opponents.

A sample of the digital bile: YouTube user Nanoune Charles declared: “Put ropes on” these pastors. A Twitter account with the handle Lajoie Boul said the pastors should be “ashamed to preach the gospel” and called them a “bunch of assassins.”

“These comments can be an incitement to violence,” warned Jacques Jean-Vernet, a Christian sociologist who advises senior pastors.

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Catholic leaders in Haiti also denounced a turn away from democracy and the rule of law under Moïse. But evangelical leaders took a more confrontational approach, joining with civil society groups and calling their followers to the streets in February and March to protest Moïse’s attempts to change the constitution and fortify the powers of the presidency.

Haiti’s most influential evangelical leaders said Moïse was in league with the violent street gangs that have unleashed a wave of kidnappings, killings and rapes. Moïse denied the claim.

“The religious in Haiti do not normally partake in political marches, but this time, the unsafe situation with the armed gangs led the Protestants to mobilize throughout Haiti,” said Laënnec Hurbon, a Haitian sociologist and researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research. “They saw a link between the president and the gangs.”

Moïse was shot to death after a team of armed men descended on his home early on July 7. Three days later, authorities detained Sanon. They claim he was a key player in the plot.

Several people interviewed by The Washington Post said Sanon had shared his wish to lead Haiti. None said Sanon mentioned any plan to kill Moïse.

Sanon told at least one of them that he was counting on evangelical support to aid him in his rise to power. That person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential communication, said Sanon spoke of an “evangelical uprising” that he believed would touch off a sequence of events that would lead to Moïse’s eventual resignation.

“Phase one was an evangelical uprising,” the person said. “The clergy would say, ‘We want him out.’”

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Under that scenario, the person said, popular protests would grow, forcing Moïse to step down. The person said Sanon believed he had enough support within the evangelical and business communities in Haiti to fill the resulting power vacuum and lead a transition government.

Some evangelical pastors in Haiti say they have known of Sanon since the 2000s, when he pledged to give U.S. scholarships and small loans to parishioners — pledges it is unclear he ever kept. They say he was not part of organizing their large protests in March.

The Rev. Joseph Gérald Bataille, one of Haiti’s most influential pastors, said he’d known Sanon since 2016, when he says Sanon tried to sell him a television station “that he didn’t even own.”

In January, Bataille said, Sanon approached him and claimed to be working for the U.S. government to improve Haiti’s plight. In May, Bataille said, Sanon told him of a plan to “arrest” Moïse.

Bataille said he observed Sanon with “White bodyguards” — men he says he now recognizes as some of the former Colombian military personnel also being held in connection with the assassination. Bataille said Sanon never made a specific request for his help. But he did ask for the opportunity to preach to his flock — a request Bataille said he denied.

“He was not one of us,” Bataille said. “I can say he had nothing to do with our protests. He wasn’t there, and nobody invited him.”

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Three members of the Tabarre Evangelical Tabernacle, a church with broken windows that sits behind red gates east of Port-au-Prince’s airport, said Sanon had preached there since the 2000s. He had started at the congregation’s original house of worship across the street before it crumbled in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.

They said he had not preached at the church for “several months” before the assassination.

“I recognized him as the spiritual leader of our church,” said Detournel Saint-Martin, a 61-year-old street vendor. “I do not see him as someone who could do what they say he did.

“I am praying for him,” he said. “All this has given us a real headache.”

Shawn Boburg in Washington contributed to this report.