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September 23, 2008

Montreal Voodoo conference brings a religion linked to sorcery to light.

Fabienne Colas is hoping to bring Voodoo, a religion long linked to black magic, into the light.

Colas is the founder of the five-day Montreal International Haitian Film Festival.

She chose to explore the subject of Voodoo with this year's film fest - an exhibition of Voodoo art and artifacts - and a one-day conference.

"Voodoo is still associated with everything evil, the devil, there's a lot of taboos and prejudice surrounding it in our very own community," she said in an interview Saturday.

"(Canadians) believe Voodoo is just dolls and black magic. They only see how Hollywood portrays Voodoo, and within the Haitian community Voodoo has long been linked to slavery."

Voodoo was transplanted to Haiti by Africans during the slave trade, but Haitian Voodoo is a mix of traditions based on African, aboriginal, and Catholic beliefs.

Michel Soukar, an author on Haitian history and society, said the religion was linked to poverty, ignorance and slavery and was forbidden by the colonialists who ruled the island.

"Old practices of slaves were de-valued," he said.

"And anything that could unite the masses was forbidden and persecuted."

The monotheistic religion dominates Haiti's religious landscape. It has no formal theology, congress, or scripture and is predominantly an oral tradition.

Similar forms of Voodoo are also practiced in Brazil and Cuba.

It was only recognized as an official religion in Haiti in 2003 and Montreal's 120,000-strong Haitian community has mixed feelings about the practice.

However, theologian Jean Fils Aime said during the conference that the majority of Quebec Haitians practice Voodoo in one form or other.

Colas admits she didn't understand Voodoo.

"I had all these prejudices and taboos against it," she said.

"It was really ignorance. I though Voodoo was for poor people, for others."

Soukar said numerous economic and social reasons lead to people linking voodoo with black magic, or the so-called left-hand path.

Some of these practices began to dominate the tradition and fetishism and superstition surrounded the beliefs.

"So for many people Voodoo became sorcery, Voodoo is sorcery. But that's not the case," he said in an interview.

"Voodoo is, essentially, the service of the spirits who are intermediaries between God, who believers recognize as the only God-creator of the universe."

Because the 'Grand Maitre' is too remote for personal worship, spirit intermediaries were created to help solve daily problems in human society, he said.

These 401 spirits, or Loas, speak to God for them, mediated by a priest, or houngan, or a priestess, called a mambo.

"Essentially, in its philosophy, Voodoo, like Christianity and other practices, is about love, joy, justice, all these fundamental values that permit humans to develop and blossom," Soukar said.

"It's the path of light."


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