Police in Haiti reportedly fired tear gas as dozens were participating in a “Mass for the freedom of Haiti” led by Catholic bishops on Thursday as part of an ongoing national protest against recent kidnappings of priests and others in the Caribbean nation.
Nearly a dozen Catholic bishops and dozens of people were attending the mass at the Church of St. Peter in Pétion-Ville, a suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
According to Miami Herald, the crowd had overflown onto the streets when police fired tear gas and gunshots.
Parishioners could be seen running, screaming “tear gas” and “We need help.” Some attendees passed out in the pews, the newspaper reported.
The mass had been organized as part of a national strike in response to the recent kidnapping of five Catholic priests, two nuns and three laypeople amid growing lawlessness, a spike in kidnapping and gang violence in the country.
The Catholic Church is seeking to play an active role in addressing the challenges facing the impoverished nation.
“The Catholic Church can help bring about change. The country needs it,” Andre Michel, a leading opposition member present at the church, was quoted as saying by AFP.
According to The Miami Herald, 11 bishops led by Port-au-Prince Archbishop Max Leroy Mésidor walked into the church around 12 p.m. as church bells were ringing and banging could be heard as far as a nearby mountainside.
The people gathered in the church repeatedly chanted, “Nou Bouke.” which means “We are fed up.” They also chanted for the ousting of Haiti President Jovenel Moise.
“It was no longer a mass. It was truly a spontaneous political demonstration against the power, against kidnapping,” Michel told The Miami Herald. “When the Mass ended, the police fired tear gas. I almost died from asphyxiation inside.”
A spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Haiti told the newspaper that police had offered various reasons for why tear gas was deployed. One reason church officials were told was that the authorities wanted to prevent protests. Another reason given was that some demonstrators began to set cars ablaze, The Miami Herald noted.
As most Haitian people are Catholic, Haitian Cardinal Chibly Langlois told the AFP that the church enjoys “great confidence” among the majority of the Haitian population. When the nation goes through difficult times, people expect “a word from the Catholic Church.”
Days before the mass, the Catholic Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince issued a statement criticizing “the descent into hell of Haitian society” and against the “violence of armed gangs.”
“Public authorities” are not “immune from suspicion,” the statement added.
Fiammetta Cappellini, a Haiti-based country representative for the Italy-based charity AVSI, told Catholic News Service that “the violence has reached a high point.”
“We see that this is the deepest point ever reached in this country and we cannot go deeper,” said Cappellini, whose organization began operations in Haiti in 1999.
Kidnapping has become common in Haiti.
According to The Associated Press, radio stations often broadcast pleas for help raising ransom money or help to find a body.
Last month, four police officers were killed as they attempted to raid a criminal gang's stronghold.
The United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti stated in a February report that there were 234 kidnappings in the previous 12 months, an increase of 200% from the previous year.
Authorities in Haiti reported 1,380 killings in 2020, according to AP.
According to the watchdog group Fondasyon Je Klere, over 150 gangs operate in Haiti.