Arson at Caribbean church sparks tension between Catholic and Rastafarian leaders

st lucia arson A man sets fire to a crucifix outside a church in St. Lucia. | YouTube screenshot

A man on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia attempted on Sunday to set fire to a crucifix outside a Catholic church, while parishioners worshiped inside the building.

The man, whose name has not been released to the public, threw two homemade incendiary devices at the crucifix of St. Martin De Porres Catholic Church in the village of Pierrot, part of the town of Vieux-Fort on Saint Lucia - a small island in the eastern Caribbean.

While the perpetrator tried to set fire to the statue, which only burned briefly before it was extinguished, he yelled "judgment." He then entered the church with two more incendiary devices, but parishioners restrained the man before handing him over to the police.

In a video of the incident, parishioners can be seen running from the building in panic as the perpetrator yelled inside the church.

Deacon Harris Wilfred said he first noticed the disturbance as parishioners began to run outside. The deacon then held a cross in front of himself and urged the trespasser to leave.

"The guy came inside the church where I was standing saying 'fire burn, fire burn'… What I had to do was to hold a cross in front of me and tell him, 'Look, go back, go back,'" he told local news outlet Loop St. Lucia.

Archbishop Robert Rivas of Castries lamented the event, especially as it takes place during the pandemic and people are faced with numerous uncertainties. He stressed the sanctity of churches and their contribution to the community.

"That there would be an attack on sacred worship where people are in communion with each other and with their God, praying for the good of their country and their nation and for others … In the midst of their goodness, we have an infiltration, a perpetration of evil," he said in a video response to the incident.

"The Church is one of the places where people seek solace, where people go to be in communion with their brothers and sisters and faith. The Church is a place of worship where we give honor and praise and glory to God. The Church is a place of peace."

Rivas said the young man has a psychological disorder, and has attempted similar actions in the past. He encouraged the community to be more compassionate, and to support mental health services but stressed the importance of ensuring the community's safety.

"Maybe we have another social issue here - how we care as a society for the mentally ill. If this a known person in a community, how is the community dealing with mental illness in the community?" he asked.

"He is a person that needs help. As a Church, I certainly would be very compassionate towards him and I'm sure the Church community too would be compassionate towards him. But, it is a crime."

"If something similar was done inside the church it could have endangered the lives of worshipers during Mass. It is a serious offense, a serious matter that needs to be dealt with."

The archbishop said the perpetrator spoke in slogans associated with the Rastafarian religion, and he offered to meet with Rastafarian leaders, who have distanced themselves from the crime.

"[If] we met and had some dialogue so that there would be better understanding and that we could also look at the language that we use in religious groups and to see [if] it is language that builds peace or is our language that creates conflict and can lead to violence."

Peter 'Ras Ipa' Isaac, a former President of the Iyanola Council for the Advancement of Rastafari (ICAR), demanded an apology in response to the archbishop's remarks. He told local media the perpetrator should not be assumed to be Rastafarian simply because he wears his hair in dreadlocks, a style with religious meaning for Rastafarians, or because he used language associated with the religion.

"Not everyone who misses a fall and says 'Oh Jesus' is a Christian," Isaac told the St. Lucia Times.

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"For Archbishop Rivas to suggest that this young man is a Rasta and he is requesting discussion with the Rastafarian community is insulting," he added.

Isaac said he was personally insulted by the remark.

"We want Rivas to apologise to the Rastafarian community and to me as a Rasta because I do not take lightly to calling anyone who has matted hair a Rasta," Isaac added.

There are approximately one million Rastafarians worldwide, most of them resident in the Caribbean. On the island nation of St. Lucia, which has a population of roughly 200,000, there are fewer than 4,000 Rastas. The majority of the nation's population is Catholic.

In his remarks, Archbishop Rivas stressed the importance of forgiveness.

"What happened in Pierrot should never have happened, and we don't want it to happen again. We should be taking the measures [to ensure] it doesn't happen again …. by having hearts that are willing to forgive and to be understanding, to be kind and gentle," he said.

"These are all virtues that Jesus has taught us, and if we can practice them we can change the world which we live, and make it a better place for all."

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