Prisoner Of Conscience Returns - Beloved “Mon Pere”
Jean-Juste Comes Home
By Bill Quigley
24 August, 2007
Gerard Jean-Juste, an outspoken Haitian voice for human rights, economic
justice and democracy, returned to Haiti last weekend for the first
time since being hustled out of a prison cell by heavily armed guards
and put on a waiting plane to Miami in January of 2006. Pere Jean-Juste,
a Catholic priest, had spent nearly six months in a series of Haitian
prisons for refusing to stop his public criticisms of human rights abuses
by the coup government which overthrew elected President Jean Bertrand
Aristide. Once in Miami, Father Jean-Juste was immediately hospitalized
for treatment of leukemia by Dr. Paul Farmer, a long-time friend, who
had secretly performed a biopsy on Jean-Juste in his prison cell.
Now, a year and a half later,
Pere Jean-Juste was coming home, not knowing how he would be received.
As the plane landed in Port au Prince, Father Jean-Juste quietly blessed
himself as he saw his home parish, St. Claire, from the window.
As he walked towards the
entrance to the Toussaint L’Ouverture airport, dozens of people
waved and clapped from the balconies overlooking the landing space.
Inside, airport officials, police officers, media and church members
crushed in on him. Patting his back, shaking his hands, giving him hugs,
the crowds pressed in and called out “Mon Pere!”
A new Haiti greeted him.
The unelected coup government had finally left the country. The people
elected President Rene Preval. Democracy had returned.
Inside, TV cameras, microphones,
and tape recorders were thrust in his face. Many wanted to know if he
was going to be a candidate for Presidency of Haiti in the next election.
Father Jean-Juste laughed and said, “The only election in the
Catholic Church is for Pope – and since the Pope is in good health,
I do not see an election anytime soon.”
Father spoke of the disappearance of the human rights activist Lovinsky
Pierre-Antoine, called for the return of President Aristide, and urged
people interested in human rights in Haiti to keep the pressure on –
nonviolently. He was returning to Haiti on a pilgrimage. Was he afraid
of death he was asked? “I am a Christian,” he replied. “I
know where I am going. If I die, I know the struggle will continue.
The struggle must continue for human rights and democratic principles.”
As he tried to leave the
airport, a mob of hundreds of celebrating people surrounded him, cheering
and chanting his name, trying to touch him. Dozens of UN blue helmeted
troops with plastic riot shields pushed the huge crowds back to allow
his car to exit as the crowd ran alongside.
A makeshift wooden platform
was set up at a nearby park to allow Father Jean-Juste to speak to the
crowd which had grown to well over a thousand people. On the front of
the platform was a big handmade sign – FIDEL KATOLIK YO DI’W
BON RETOU PE JANJIS – celebrating his return. The blazing mid-day
sun did not stop the celebration. Ra-ra bands made up of drums and horns
of all types wandered through the crowd as Father Jean-Juste spoke.
When it was time to leave for his church, the crowds surged in again
and it took many helpers to clear a path for his car to leave.
People of all ages lined the highway along the way to the church, waving
and cheering. Black and white photocopied pictures of Pere Jean-Juste
were plastered to cement walls next to full color pictures of the Haitian
For the first time in over
two years, Pere Jean-Juste was going home to St. Claire’s Church
in Port au Prince.
The last time he was in his
home church was July 21, 2005. That day Fr. Jean-Juste went to the funeral
of slain journalist Jacques Roche at St. Pierre’s church. During
the funeral services in the church, Fr. Jean-Juste was attacked by a
mob, chased through the church building, spit on, beaten, and nearly
killed. The unelected Haitian authorities arrested Father Jean-Juste
for the second time in less than a year and kept him in a succession
of prisons in an attempt to silence him. Amnesty International designated
him a Prisoner of Conscience and a world-wide campaign was launched
to protect his life in prison and to help win his release. When he was
released for medical treatment in Miami the authorities would not allow
him to visit his church on the way out.
Hundreds waited at the church for the return of their long-time pastor.
When he finally arrived, people sang and cheered. Soaking wet, Father
Jean-Juste tried to greet as many people as possible and thank them
for their support and good works while he was away. After greeting as
many as he could, he went up to his small room in the upper part of
the church. There, he fell to his knees and prayed silently for several
The celebratory mood was
hushed by the arrival of several trucks of armed police. Ten men in
the uniform of the Haitian National Police marched up the stairs to
see Pere Jean-Juste. To the joy of all, each of the police officers
went up to Father, shook his hand, and promised to protect him while
in Haiti. A 2005 visit by police to the church resulted in Father’s
arrest and another six months in prison. This was quite a change. Democracy
worked a wonderful change in the police.
Human rights lawyer Mario
Joseph told Father Jean-Juste that the prosecutors had dropped all the
bogus criminal charges levied against him to keep him in jail and silent
during the coup government. But some judges insisted that he return
to Haiti for a court hearing on November 5, 2007 to have all the charges
All evening, people came
to the upper room of the church to greet and pray with Pere Jean-Juste.
At one point nine women holding hands were circling Father in prayer.
Other times there were cameras and tape recorders. Outside the church,
women walked up the dusty paths with plastic buckets of water on their
heads. The air was smoky and darkness settled in quickly.
At 9:30, Father Jean-Juste unlocked the door to his bedroom. For the
first time in twenty-five months, he was home.
The next day started sunny
and hot. There were reports that Hurricane Dean was in the vicinity
of Haiti but there was no evidence of it yet. As Father Jean-Juste arrived
at early morning mass, the gathered women burst into song thanking God
for his return. Another priest who is a good friend said the Mass while
Father Jean-Juste prayed along from the choir seats. Invited to concelebrate
the mass, Fr. Jean-Juste declined, and the priest praised him for his
dedication to the church and to the people. At the priest’s invitation,
Father Jean-Juste distributed communion.
Around noon, Father arrived
at the Aristide Foundation building to speak to hundreds of hot but
cheering supporters. The crowd was full of energy. They passionately
sang the Haitian national anthem, prayed and danced and clapped to a
series of songs, had a long moment of silence for the thousands who
lost their lives opposing the coup of 2004. One person in the front
row held up a double frame of pictures – one of former President
Aristide and another of Father Jean-Juste. Dozens wore red, white and
blue t-shirts saying “Welcome back Father Jean-Juste.”
Pere Jean-Juste, dressed all in black, spoke to the crowd for nearly
an hour. They cheered, laughed, fell somber and then became excited
as he told of his experiences and the challenges facing all in Haiti.
As he finished and left people surged in again.
Back at the church, group
after group came to visit. Beautiful music soared above the conversations
as the choirs practiced in the church below. People from Cite Soleil
and other parts of Port au Prince and Haiti came and asked Father Jean-Juste
to come visit their neighbors. TV crews, youth groups, church members,
politicians, other priests, and the members of the choir all came. As
darkness fell, Father led those still at the church in a spirited forty
During the night, the winds
of Hurricane Dean arrived with force. Trees were bobbing and weaving
– rain was coming into the church rooms sideways.
Despite the high winds and
rain, 6:00 am mass was a full house of people cheering and signing in
thanksgiving for Father’s return. After mass, visiting resumed
and the hurricane did not slow down the flow of visitors either.
Pere Jean-Juste greeted every
one, child or grandmother, politician or journalist, with a smile. He
was confident and comfortable. After two six month jail terms and enduring
over a year of cancer treatment, he was clearly enjoying every second
of his return and every person he could meet.
As darkness fell on his last
night in Haiti, Pere Jean-Juste attended the closing celebration of
the church’s summer camp. During the year, hundreds of children
are fed daily by the church members with funding from the US-based What
If Foundation. In the summer camp, the number of children and meals
swells to over a thousand a day. Fifty community members serve as counselors
and the children learn painting, sewing, crocheting, and other arts
Yellow paper streamers hung
under the tin roof that sheltered the kids and counselors and family
from the rain during the end of the summer camp celebration. Children
cheered as “Mon Pere” arrived and sang him spirited songs.
The children performed skits and counselors, by candlelight, showed
Father their arts and craft creations. Particularly gratifying was the
installation, while Father was away, of several outdoor toilets for
the community including one with full underground plumbing.
Throughout his last night,
people continuously knocked on the door of the church to come and see
him. A robust midnight rosary was sung by the community. Father said
he got three hours of sleep but that seemed doubtful.
In the early morning, the
first plane since Hurricane Dean’s winds slowed down, arrived
in Port au Prince. While waiting for the plane and while on the plane,
people continued to come up to Father to greet him and touch him and
welcome him. As the plane took off and his country receded from view,
Pere Jean-Juste closed his eyes and prayed for Haiti.
a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans.
Bill assists Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in
Port au Prince and Brian Concannon of the Institute of Justice and Democracy
in Haiti in representation of Pere Jean-Juste. He can be reached at
Those wishing to contact Pere Jean-Juste directly should email him c/o
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