PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Ten U.S. Baptists detained trying to take 33 children out of earthquake-shattered Haiti without government permission say they were just trying to do the right thing, applying Christian principles to save Haitian children.
But their "Orphan Rescue Mission" is striking nerves in a country that has long suffered from child trafficking and foreign interventions, and where much of the aid is delivered in ways that challenge Haiti's own rich religious traditions.
Prime Minister Max Bellerive on Sunday told The Associated Press that the group was arrested and is under judicial investigation "because it is illegal trafficking of children and we won't accept that."
The Americans are the first people to be arrested since the Jan 12 quake on such suspicions. No charges have been filed.
The government and established child welfare agencies are trying to slow Haitian adoptions amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Without proper documents and concerted efforts to track down their parents, they could be forever separated from family members able and willing to care for them.
Social Affairs Minister Yves Cristallin told The Associated Press that the Americans were suspected of taking part in an illegal adoption scheme.
The orphanage where the children were later taken said some of the kids have living parents, who were apparently told the children were going on a holiday from the post-quake misery.
The church group's own mission statement said it planned to spend only hours in the devastated capital, quickly identifying children without immediate families and busing them to a rented hotel in the Dominican Republic without bothering to get permission from the Haitian government.
Whatever their intentions, other child welfare organizations in Haiti said the plan was foolish at best.
"The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake," said Deb Barry, a protection expert at Save the Children, which wants a moratorium on new adoptions. "The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labeled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high."
The church members, most from Idaho, said they were only trying to rescue abandoned and traumatized children.
"In this chaos the government is in right now, we were just trying to do the right thing," the group's spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, told the AP from inside Haiti's judicial police headquarters, where she and others were being held until a Monday hearing.
Officials said they lacked the proper documents for the children, whose names were written on pink tape on their shirts.
The children, ages 2 months to 12 years old, were taken to an orphanage run by Austrian-based SOS Children's Villages, where spokesman George Willeit said they arrived "very hungry, very thirsty, some dehydrated."
"One (8-year-old) girl was crying, and saying, 'I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.' And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that," Willeit said.
The orphanage was working Sunday to reunite the children with their families, joining a concerted effort by the Haitian government, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other NGOs.
In Idaho, the Rev. Clint Henry denied that his Central Valley Baptist Church had anything to do with child trafficking.
He urged his tearful congregation to pray to God to "help them as they seek to resist the accusations of Satan and the lies that he would want them to believe and the fears that he would want to plant into their heart."
As the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti is in a difficult spot — it needs aid, but deeply resents foreign meddling. Many have an uneasy relationship with American evangelical Christian groups that funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into their missions in Haiti.
Since Haiti became the world's first black republic in 1804, its people have seen several U.S. military occupations, was wrongly blamed for the spread of AIDS and has been vilified for the Voodoo traditions brought from West Africa. Voodoo is one of Haiti's two constitutionally recognized religions, along with Roman Catholicism, and two-thirds of Haiti's 9 million people are said to worship its spirits.
One Voodoo leader said the Idaho group's plan — to give each child "new life in Christ" while facilitating their adoptions by "loving Christian families" in the United States — is deeply offensive.
"There are many who come here with religious ideas that belong more in the time of the inquisition," said Max Beauvoir, head of Haiti's Voodoo Priest's Association, which represents thousands of priests and priestesses. "These types of people believe they need to save our souls and our bodies from ourselves. We need compassion, not proselytizing now, and we need aid — not just aid going to people of the Christian faith."
Many religious groups run legitimate adoption agencies and orphanages in Haiti. Some of the children in them aren't actually orphans, but have been left by relatives who can't afford their care.
At the same time, bogus adoption agencies also prey on families in Haiti, offering children to rich Haitians and foreigners in return for processing fees reaching $10,000, according to the intergovernmental International Organization for Migration.
Restoring families inside Haiti is a goal of leading aid agencies and the Haitian government. Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
Silsby told the AP that she hadn't been following news reports while in Haiti, and didn't think she needed Haitian permission to take them out of the country. She said they only had the best of intentions and paid no money for the children, who she said were brought to a Haitian pastor by their distant relatives.
Child trafficking "is exactly what we are trying to combat," Silsby said.
The 10 detained Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. They are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America's largest Protestant denomination and has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide.
It is becoming more common for individual Southern Baptist congregations to run their own mission programs, ranging from sending doctors overseas for short-term trips to undertaking evangelism work.
The Idaho churches had elaborate plans before the earthquake to "provide a loving Christian homelike environment" for up to 200 Haitian and Dominican boys and girls in the Magante beach resort, complete with a school and chapel as well as villas and a seaside cafe catering to adoptive U.S. parents.
"One of the reasons that our church wanted to help is because we believe that Christ has asked us to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, and that includes children," Henry, the senior pastor, said.
The 500-member church, where signs taped to large bins outside the pastors' offices read "Donations for Haiti," gave several thousand dollars to the mission, Henry said.
When the quake hit, they decided to move faster. Silsby, who runs an online shopping site in Idaho, quickly put their plan on Web site, soliciting tax-deductible donations while preparing their trip. "Given the urgent needs from this earthquake, God has laid upon our hearts the need to go now, versus waiting until the permanent facility is built," the group wrote.