Republic of Haiti: Law and Religion Overview

Jordan Pendergrass


This overview provides the legal and political landscape of religious liberties and policies in the Republic of Haiti and includes a diagram of government organization. Relevant laws, policies, and persons of interest are addressed.

Haiti has a constitutionally expressed commitment to religious freedom and generally it honors this commitment in practice. Religious organizations must register with the government to enjoy certain benefits. Registration requirements are not used to deny legitimacy to minority religions, and many groups remain unregistered without experiencing negative consequences. 


Haiti has a population of nearly 10 million people.  The religious affiliation of Haiti’s population breaks down as follows: Roman Catholic 80%; Baptist 10%; Pentecostal 4%; Adventist 1%; and 1% other, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Methodists, Episcopalians, Muslims and Scientologists.  Relatively few Haitians practice Vodou exclusively, but nearly half of the population practices Vodou in conjunction with another form of religion. Only 1% of the population professes no religious faith. In 1997, the World Jewish Congress reported Haiti’s permanent Jewish population to be 25 persons.   

a.  Catholicism

Roman Catholicism first came to the island of Hispaniola in 1511 with the founding of the Dioceses of Santo Domingo and Concepción de la Vega.  Periodic waves of evangelization over the succeeding centuries helped Catholicism to flourish.  The present apportionment of the island between Haiti and the Dominican Republic can be traced to the church’s original ecclesiastical organization.  

As a French colony, in 1801, Saint-Domingue adopted a constitution which established a prominent status for Catholicism.  Haiti declared independence in 1804. The constitution of 1805 admitted no predominant religion, tolerated freedom of worship, and proscribed government maintenance of religious institutions or clergy.  Further political reorganization allowed the Catholic Church to enjoy official status for the majority of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

In 1860 Haiti entered into a concordat with the Holy See under which the government granted the Catholic Church special protections and paid its clergy an annual salary. In return the president was granted rights to nominate bishops and archbishops.  The concordat was altered twice—once in 1966 and once in 1984. While neither Haiti nor the Holy See has formally renounced the concordat, and notwithstanding continued government support of Catholicism, there has been no official state religion in Haiti since the implementation in 1987 of the current constitution. 

Catholicism is a major religious force in Haitian life. There are 10 Catholic dioceses within Haiti’s two ecclesiastical provinces, amounting to 251 parishes and approximately 1500 Christian rural communities. The indigenous clergy has 400 diocesan priests and 300 seminarians. Improving economic and social conditions in Haiti has been a focus of many Catholics in Haiti and abroad—especially since Haiti’s devastating earthquake of 2010. The ninth Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Joseph Serge Miot, was among the great many killed in the 2010 earthquake. 

b.  Non-Catholic Christianity

Elements of Haitian culture, opportunities for humanitarianism and proximity to the United States have contributed to a high level of non-Catholic Christian activity in Haiti. Foreign missionaries have visited Haiti during much of the nation’s independent history, and to a certain degree their proselytization has been fruitful. Minority Christian groups are well established, enjoying a variety of government benefits. 

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, ten American missionaries were arrested as they tried to take 33 children out of Haiti to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.  Nine of the missionaries were released after their charges of kidnapping were dropped. The group’s leader was convicted of arranging illegal travel and sentenced to time served. 

c.  Islam

The first Muslims on the island of Hispaniola were slaves brought from Africa in the 17th century.   Today Islam enjoys relative respect in Haiti as its faithful slowly grow in number and several mosques are available for worship.  Contemporary estimates place the total population of Haitian Muslims at approximately 5000, most of them residing in Port-au-Prince. In 2000, Nawoon Marcellus became the first Muslim ever elected to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Haiti’s bicameral legislature. Muslim goodwill service following the 2010 earthquake and repatriation of Muslim converts converted abroad has led to increased popularity and positive perceptions of the religion. 

 d.  Vodou (Vaudou, Vodun, Vodoun, Vodoo)

Vodou is often closely associated with Haiti yet historically its practices have faced persecution within Haitian society.  Institutional Catholicism and the Haitian elite were known to degrade its traditional beliefs and practices. In the latter half of the twentieth century Vodou garnered increased tolerance, if not respect. In a significant development, the Constitution of 1987 extended human rights protections to Vodou practitioners. In 2003, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide granted Vodou official recognition, authorizing Vodou priests to perform civil ceremonies such as marriages. President Aristide, who was a former Catholic priest, declared, “voodoo is an essential part of national identity.”  

A constitutional amendment that took effect in May 2012 caused concern that the practice of Vodou could again be criminalized. Government officials responded to the concerns by citing President Aristide’s 2003 decree and stressing that the practice of Vodou would not be limited by the amendment.  


Article 30 of the Haitian constitution of 1987 declares the nation’s commitment to religious freedom and allows for regulation of religious organizations:

ARTICLE 30: All religions and faiths shall be freely exercised. Everyone is entitled to profess his religion and practice his faith, provided the exercise of that right does not disturb law and order.

ARTICLE 30-1: No one may be compelled to belong to a religious organization or to follow a religious teaching contrary to his convictions.

ARTICLE 30-2: The law establishes the conditions for recognition and practice of religions and faiths.

Also of importance, especially with respect to Vodou, is Article 297, which states: 

All laws, all decree laws, all decrees arbitrarily limiting the basic rights and liberties of citizens, in particular: (a) The decree law of September 5, 1935 on superstitious beliefs; […] Are and shall remain repealed.”


The U.S. Department of State reports that Haitian society was generally tolerant of religious practices and that there were no recent reports of societal abuse or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.   Christian opposition to Vodou is common but mainly pacific.  In 2010, it was reported that at least 45 people, most of whom were Vodou priests, had been killed in response to accusations that the priests were responsible for a cholera outbreak. 


The constitution of 1987 provides that “[t]he law establishes the conditions for recognition and practice of religion and faiths.”  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship monitors and administers religious affairs in Haiti, and its subordinate Bureau of Religious Affairs manages registration of religious groups and persons. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs is Pierre-Richard Casimir. 

Religious groups officially recognized by the Bureau of Religious Affairs are tax exempt, have standing in legal disputes, and enjoy a waiver of certain customs fees.   Registered religious groups may also perform civilly binding ceremonies.  Documents such as marriage and baptismal certificates issued by registered groups receive civil recognition.    

Many Christian groups have successfully registered with the government, but the National Council of Muslims in Haiti reports that it has unsuccessfully sought recognition.  Several faith-based groups operate without having sought or obtained recognition. 

a.  Registering Religious Organizations

To register with the Bureau of Religious Affairs, a religious group must provide information on the qualifications of its leader and lists of its members and social projects. To obtain the government’s legal recognition, a religious group must also provide the following to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship: a letter requesting legal recognition; the address and area of the mission or religious organization; a written copy of the organization’s bylaws and internal regulations (such as a code of conduct); and a list of the organization’s pastors, priests, or other religious authorities. To register in Haiti, a foreign mission or religious organization must be presided over by a Haitian pastor, priest, etc.

b.  Requirements for Registered Religious Organizations

A 1978 decree established that a religious group whose relationship with the State is not regulated by a concordat or other form of agreement requires written authorization of the State Secretariat of Religious Organizations to commence or continue its mission.  The Secretary shall give a written authorization to exercise its mission to beneficiaries appointed as pastors, ministers, deacons, vicars, bishops and all other positions of said religious groups capable of having an influence on the formation of people and future generations.

Only the Ministry of Worship may convey the official title of priest, pastor, or minister of a church. To obtain any of these titles, a religious official must: be of Haitian nationality or have a stay permit; be 18 years or older; have a certificate of good standing, a health certificate, a diploma, a letter certifying his affiliation to a church or mission, and an ordinance letter. Additionally, registered religious officials must swear in before the dean of the civil court.  

Religious group registered in Haiti must provide an annual report of their activities to the Minister of Worship.  Once registered, an organization must submit three copies of the report before the first Monday of October.   

c.  Foreign Missionaries

Foreign visitors with a passport may stay in Haiti for up to 90 days.  The law requires that foreigners staying in the country longer than 90 days obtain a residence visa or a permis de sejour (stay permit).  Some foreign missionaries have simply opted to stay in the country for more than 90 days and pay a small fine upon leaving the country.

To obtain a stay permit, a foreign missionary must send a request to the Ministry of the Interior, along with the following documents: a copy of the missionary’s birth certificate, and marriage certificate (where applicable); a copy of the first and last page of the missionary’s passport; photographs (for identification); a medical certificate (which the missionary can obtain in Haiti); a letter of employment (if applicable); and a tax of 5000 Haitian gourdes (subject to change), payable by certified check to “Tresor Public”. A stay permit can be delivered within three weeks of a foreign missionary’s submission of documents.  A stay permit is issued for a period of one year and is renewable for up to five years.