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Pro-Aristide prelate beaten outside church: Bishop Romelus alleges complicity by Haitian police.

Bishop Romelus alleges complicity by Haitian police

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Several street thugs beat Bishop Willy Romelus outside the National Cathedral last week after the prelate finished leading a Mass that turned into a raucous demonstration for the exiled president, Father Jean-Bertland Aristide.

After declining a diplomatic escort, Romelus was attacked by about 60 men - suspected to be working under police orders - who shouted "Death to Romelus!" and "Kill communists!"

Less than 30 yards from the cathedral's main entrance, Romelus was punched in the face, his glasses were broken and his vestments torn from his body. His purple sash was later returned to him by United Nations diplomat Michael Moller, who made one of the assailants surrender it.

A joint U.N. and Organization of American States team, which is in Haiti to monitor human-rights conditions, intervened moments after the Feb. 25 attack had started and hustled Romelus into a diplomatic car. He was driven to the French Embassy and later to a safe house here in the Haitian capital.

The bishop was struck hard during the attack but was not seriously hurt. Two French diplomats, an OAS monitor and Paul Dejean, the head of the Haitian League of Human Rights and a former priest, also were roughed up by the mob.

Romelus, 62, is bishop of the Jeremie diocese, an isolated harbor city in Haiti's southwestern corner. Like other members of the Haitian Episcopal Conference, Romelus was elevated to bishop by the Duvalier dietatorship and, like other bishops, supported the popular uprising that exiled Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986.

But unlike other Haitian bishops, Romelus has remained loyal to the struggle for social justice here and is the only Haitian bishop who publicly supports Aristide. Other bishops have turned conservative since 1986. For example, Romelus is the only bishop who criticized Rome's decision to recognize the army-backed government that succeeded the Aristide regime. The Vatican remains the only state to have formal relations with de facto Prime Minister Marc L. Bazin.

The day after the attack, Romelus alleged that the assailants were paid by the police. He said some gang members were recognized as murderers who broke out of the national penitentiary during the 1991 coup d'etat, which overthrew the freely elected Aristide government.

Some also were responsible, he said, for the 1988 assault on St. Jean-Bosco Church, Aristide's last parish assignment in Haiti, in which at least 13 people were killed.

Moller, who heads the U.N. human-rights mission here, said police pulled out from the cathedral area just before Romelus left the church. Police returned shortly after the attack.

Other diplomats said that attackers worked in conjunction with police and that officers left the area to have an excuse for not intervening on behalf of Romelus. One police corporal told NCR: "I don't like Romelus. He's a communist. He wants to pour gasoline on us and-set us on fire."

The Mass, convened to mourn the hundreds of Haitians who drowned in a ferry accident Feb. 17, was attended by about 2,000 people and part of the Port-au-Prince diplomatic corps, including Moller. Some of those present interrupted the Mass with pro-Aristide chants or slogans; later, some clashed with the thugs outside the cathedral.

During the Mass, Romelus told the congregation, "We take advantage of this occasion to tell the members of the U.N. and the OAS, to tell them to support the Haitian people. Because people cannot live in these conditions. The Haitian people can take it no longer."

Romelus also criticized the government for not taking responsibility for the ferry accident. An exact number of passengers on the "Neptune," which capsized during a rainstorm, is unknown. Only about 300 survivors have been accounted for. Estimates of the death toll range from 600 to 900 people. Many of the victims lived in Jeremie. During the service, three empty caskets draped in the blue-and-red Haitian flag were placed in front of the altar.

"The people who the army put in power, have they taken responsibility? No. They say because of shortages the |Neptune' didn't have lifeboats. Or not enough gasoline," Romelus said. "But why is there always enough gasoline to put tanks on the streets? We didn't come here to cry. It is those carrying evil who must cry."

At the end of the Mass, Moller and 10 OAS monitors escorted pro-Aristide politicians from the church.

Moller then began five hours of negotiations with Haitian police officers to provide safe. passage for people inside the cathedral. The gang of thugs began to gather outside of the church as the service came to a close.

About 40 police officers, armed with assault rifles, stood on patrol just outside the cathedral's, main gates.

Before Moller's negotiations, a Voice of America reporter and 10 Catholic seminarians were arrested by police. All were later released. A deal was finally struck by Moller to let parishioners leave the church in small groups. Diplomatic cars drove Haitians to safety. About 200 protesters were still in the church when safe passage was negotiated.

Romelus told Reuters, the British news agency, that repression since the coup has taken on dimensions not witnessed even under the late dictator Francois Duvalier: "It's different this time because priests are being attacked. Even under Duvalier the church was left alone."

The disturbance at the cathedral came as the U.N. issued a report describing the dismal human-rights record under the current Haitian regime, including murders, torture and extortion. Restoration of democracy is the only solution, the report said.

Romelus has a special relationship with Aristide. They are cousins and both grew up, separately, near the southern town of Port Salut.

Romelus, who ordained Aristide in 1982, said he would not impede political spontaneity. Referring to Aristide's landslide victory in the 1990 presidential election, he said, "The Haitian people made a choice in 1990, and that must be respected."

On Feb. 26 Romelus drove back to Jeremie, accompanied by U.N. and OAS human-rights monitors. The next night, Romelus led a Mass at the Jeremie cathedral Parishioners shouted pro-Aristide slogans during the service. Soldiers from the Jeremie garrison, who were waiting outside the church, beat worshipers. Troops fired their weapons in the air. Romelus was unhurt and led a Mass on Feb. 28 that ended peacefully.
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Title Annotation:Willy Romelus
Author:Slavin, J.P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 12, 1993
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