Attack Points to 'Lethal' Mix of Religion, Rebellion, Drugs
Caribbean: The recent assault at a church in St. Lucia raises concerns about Rastafarianism's radical youths.
By MARK FINEMAN, Times Staff Writer
CASTRIES, St. Lucia--It was in a cave near the Soufriere volcano at the
heart of this Caribbean island that Kim John says he
first heard the voice of God.
It was Haile Selassie, the late Ethiopian emperor worshiped by Rastafarians worldwide, who spoke to him sometime last year,
John told police inspectors last week. The voice anointed the 20-year-old as "the chosen one" and commanded him to free his
people from bondage and destroy the "system of Babylon," John said.
And so it was that, according to witnesses and investigators, John and at least one accomplice burst into the Roman Catholic
cathedral--this island's icon of unity and culture for 101 years--just after dawn last Sunday.
Clad in flowing robes and armed with clubs, flaming torches and gasoline cans, the attackers charged up the aisle, randomly
dousing and torching a dozen parishioners--a carpenter, a clerk, a retiree, a grandmother.
One attacker set fire to the priest and the altar. Another bludgeoned to death Sister Theresa Egan, an Irish nun who had
worked on the island for 42 years, because "he saw the devil" in her pale blue eyes, police Inspector Gregory Montoute later
The carnage left behind what Prime Minister Kenny Anthony called "lacerations of the spirit that deeply scar the identity of our
nation and a common cross that we all must bear."
"This atrocious act has profoundly affected us at home and abroad," Anthony conceded in an address to his nation's 150,000
people--about 80% Catholic--who survive largely on a tourism industry that draws about 70,000 Americans a year to the island's
extraordinary beauty. "At home, the sense of trauma is tangible and the horror will take some time to fade. Abroad, our image as a
civilized, peace-loving and tolerant nation has been severely harmed."
But the impact of the attack by self-proclaimed Rastafarians at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception here goes far beyond
St. Lucia's traditionally peaceful shores. It comes at a time when Rastafarians throughout the Caribbean are becoming a more vocal,
visible and, some rival religious leaders say, potentially violent political and social force.
Bolstered by thousands of new believers from a rebellious younger generation plagued by poverty and joblessness on small
island states, Rastafarians have begun to contest elections, protest policies that have discriminated against them for decades and
lobby for decriminalizing marijuana, which adherents smoke as a religious sacrament.
The religion was founded in the 1930s by the descendants of African slaves in Jamaica. Its believers worship Haile Selassie as
the living god of the black race. They follow as their sacred text parts of the Bible, except where they believe changes were made by
"Babylon," which they equate with a white power structure that includes the pope and the Vatican.
As Anthony put it in an interview here Friday, the attack targeted just one major symbol of Babylon; it could easily have targeted
"The question is, if the church is the first victim, who is the next?" Anthony said. "The Caribbean is going through a very, very,
very difficult period. We are all troubled, troubled because we are witnessing the increasing marginalization of young males at an
uncontrollable rate. We are troubled by rising poverty and crime. And we are troubled by an increasingly unfriendly global
Against that backdrop, he added, Rastafarianism is reinventing itself among disenfranchised youth. "What is apparent is that there
is an unholy alliance of this religious theology laced with this rebellion and to some extent complicated by the drugs. It is a real lethal
combination. And what has happened here can find similar manifestations in each and every island of the Caribbean."
For much of this young generation, the religion is also grounded in music. The lyrics have evolved from reggae Rasta star Bob
Marley's "One Love" and his metaphoric references to "bombing the church" to the incendiary incantations of more recent Jamaican
Rastafarian stars such as Sizzler.
"In a lot of Sizzler's songs you hear things like 'Burn down Babylon; Burn down the Vatican; Burn down the pope,' " said Peter
"Ras Ipa" Isaac, who heads St. Lucia's Imperial Ethiopian World Federation and is among the Rastafarians' old guard here--a group
that is deeply concerned about the religion's younger members and its future direction.
"It's not literal," Isaac said. "But in the young minds, like these two guys perhaps, maybe they are influenced in a literal way by
Added Msgr. Theophilius Joseph, administrator of the cathedral: "There's a new era--a new kind of protest song that is more
violent than the Bob Marley era. It's a very violent message that no doubt is influenced by the American negative rap."
St. Lucia's Rastafarian leaders condemned the church attack and disowned the two men in custody. Ras Wisely, chairman of the
island's National Council of the Advancement of Rastafarians, read a televised statement expressing sympathy for the victims and
castigating those responsible.
"Rastafarians are not really militant in any way," explained Isaac, who co-founded the island's Rastafarian council in 1997 and
sells Haile Selassie bumper stickers and Bob Marley T-shirts at Castries' cruise-ship mall.
"Rastafarians have been discriminated against for so long," he added. "Young boys are shot and killed by police chasing them for
smoking a spliff [marijuana cigarette]. Their dreadlocks are chopped off in prison. They can't get jobs because employers fear them.
We have to become a political force."
Rastafarian political blocs have formed in Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Caribbean neighbors that are among the
region's biggest marijuana producers and exporters. Others are forming elsewhere in the region, causing growing consternation
among the political and religious leaders of Caribbean cultures that are traditionally Christian and conservative.
As last Sunday's attack resonates through the region, Rastafarian leaders worry that it may cause a backlash against their religion.
Young adherents here have expressed fears of police crackdowns and further discrimination. Non-Rastafarians privately have
voiced their own fears that the violence on the last day of the second millennium was not, as police and commentators say, an
apparently isolated attack by deranged individuals.
"We certainly have no evidence these guys were connected with a sect or a cult, or that there's someone out there planning
something similar," said St. Lucia Police Supt. Albert Fregis. "But certainly one cannot rule out the possibility that something like this
can happen again."
Added Inspector Montoute, who has interrogated John and 34-year-old alleged accomplice Francis Phillip daily since the attack:
"Kim John said that there are two of them now but there are new ones coming up. What he meant by that, we don't know. But there
is a whole team investigating this."
John was captured by parishioners inside the cathedral and held for police. Phillip was arrested in a banana grove near this capital
the next day. Police say both men have confessed and were arraigned Friday on charges of murder and arson, pleading guilty to
arson and putting off their plea to murder charges until trial.
But it is the attitude of the two men, described by police and government officials here as "utterly without compunction or
remorse," that has thrust this nation into a painful period of self-assessment after a crime the prime minister told the nation was "a
wake-up call that among our youth are those . . . whose spirituality has degenerated to satanic debasement."
Joseph, the cathedral administrator, set the tone of national self-criticism at a midnight Mass he celebrated the same day of the
attack, after work crews had scrubbed away the bloodstains and burn marks. He titled his remarks: "St. Lucia, where are we
In an interview after the prime minister's speech, though, Joseph said: "We've had a lot of wake-up calls already. All these calls,
and we're still asleep."
In fact, during the past several months, this once-serene island has seen a series of rapes, murders and robberies, a pattern
repeated throughout the eastern Caribbean amid increased drug trafficking and unemployment. Those ills are largely the result of a
banana industry that is dying, locals argue, after America successfully fought to eliminate preferential European trade tariffs that had
St. Lucia has lost half of its banana-export income in the past 10 years. Today, nearly a fifth of its work force is unemployed--in
a country that had the highest birthrate in the Western Hemisphere 16 years ago, mostly attributed to teenage mothers.
"This has made the younger generation more rebellious against all of society's institutions," said Joseph, who vowed to redouble
the Catholic Church's efforts to bridge the yawning gap between the island's Christian communities, as well as between them and the
"My main thing now is to try to reach out--especially to the young Rastafarian, the marginalized youth who have been placed in
what we call ghettos. I'll try to teach them that Jah--their God--is love. What I would like to see come out of this is the churches all
coming together, working together as one force to bring redemption to a lot of the problems we have."
Asked whether the outrage, the sorrow and the pain after the attack hasn't made that task all the more difficult, Joseph shook his
"No church has gloated over what has happened to us here," he said, "because now they all realize it can happen to them too."