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Guyana - Religion

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 735,000 (July 2015 estimate). According to the 2002 census, 57 percent of the population is Christian, 28 percent Hindu, 7 percent Muslim (mainly Sunni), and 2 percent belongs to other religious groups. Among Christian groups, Pentecostals make up 17 percent of the population; Roman Catholics, 8 percent; Anglicans, 7 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 5 percent; Methodists, 2 percent; and other Christians, 18 percent.

Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Rastafarians and Bahais. An estimated 4 percent of the population does not profess any religious affiliation. Some religious groups assert greater numbers of members than reported in the 2002 census.

The membership of most religious groups includes a cross section of ethnic groups, although nearly all Hindus are of Indian descent and most Rastafarians are of African descent.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. An individual may, “alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, [establish or share] his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The government limited the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion; however, religious groups reported the visa quotas allotted to them did not affect their activities adversely, as the visa-limitation rule was rarely applied stringently.

An unenforced law requires a prison term of one year for a blasphemous libel conviction, but exempts religious expression made in “good faith and decent language.”

Although not included in official figures, substantial numbers of persons practice Rastafarianism and/or a traditional Caribbean religion known locally as "Obeah," either apart from or in conjunction with the practice of other faiths. From its origin, African religion was known for being a powerful matrix of spirituality. But many of these traditional solemn rites did not survive the times, given the agonies of slavery and the cultural and religious influences of other ethnic groups. But some practices, though they are not predominantly practiced, are still observed. The African Guyanese indigenous religions are Obeah and Comfa.

Obeah (like the Haitian Voodoo, or the Jamaican variant, Myalism, or Trinidadian Shango) sought ritualistic links with the spirit world. Obeah is considered to be the spiritual magic of the first human societies on the African continent. And it is practiced it Guyana in a raw and pure form. The person performing the “spiritual magic” is called the witch doctor or “Obeah man.” Obeah can be used to return lovers as break up couples. It provides spells for love, money, spiritual protection and just about anything at all. However, the rituals and practices in this field remain closely guarded secrets.

The obeah medical assistants-dispensers in a post-slavery British Caribbean colony, British Guiana, from the end of slavery in the 1830s to the early twentieth century were crucial to the functioning of the colonial medical system. But local physicians resented them, complaining about the economic threat they posed and at times condemning them as quacks. These attacks were part of a wider discussion about the composition of the medical profession and the role of medical auxiliaries in colonial society, and to an extent, they echoed debates conducted in other jurisdictions in this period. But in the British Caribbean, this discussion was significantly different. There, long-standing views about obeah-an Afro-Creole medico-religious practice-as a particularly dangerous and uncivilised type of quackery was part of the discursive context.

Comfa is focused on the Water Mumma, or Goddess of the water. The full moon and black water are important in the timing and placing of ceremonies which is normally defined by elements of ecstatic, trancelike dancing, and spirit possession, induced by drumming. It is practiced in Guyana mainly by the descendants of enslaved Africans. The religious practices designated by the term Cumfo were also referred to as Watermama in honor of the river gods. Reflecting the socio-cultural history of Guyana, Comfa shows influences of European and Asian cultures and religions in an essentially African framework.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a religious group known as the House of Israel became an informal part of the PNC's security apparatus and engaged in actions such as strikebreaking, progovernment demonstrations, political intimidation, and murder. The House of Israel was led by an ardent PNC supporter, David Hill, locally known as Rabbi Washington. Hill was an American fugitive wanted for blackmail, larceny, and tax evasion.

Despite its name, the House of Israel was neither Israeli nor Jewish-oriented. It was, instead, a black supremacist cult that claimed that Afro-Guyanese were the original Hebrews. Cult adherents further believed that modern-day Jews were, in fact, descendants of other non-Jewish biblical peoples and were in Israel illegally. Serving as a paramilitary force for the PNC, the House of Israel had 8,000 members, including a 300-member guard force known as the "royal cadets."

A 1979 incident illustrates the House of Israel's close relationship with the Burnham administration. A member of the cult, Bilal Ato, murdered a reporter working for an opposition newspaper on July 14, 1979. The reporter had been taking photographs of an antigovernment demonstration when he was stabbed to death. Although the entire incident was filmed by other journalists, the government took three years to bring the case to trial. A former state prosecutor defended Ato. The judge reduced Ato's charge to manslaughter and sentenced him to eight years in prison.

Later in 1979, as well as during the early and mid-1980s, the government used the House of Israel to break strikes and to disrupt public meetings of any group that the government felt might oppose its policies. Observers claimed that House of Israel members were accompanied by police and sometimes wore police uniforms during these incidents. In 1985 House of Israel members allegedly prevented delegates from entering the annual general meeting of the Guyana Council of Churches in Georgetown.

When President Hugh Desmond Hoyte took power in 1985, the House of Israel fell out of government favor. In July 1986, Rabbi Washington and other key House of Israel leaders were arrested and charged with murder. Washington pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received a fifteen-year sentence.

The People's Temple was a church where blacks and whites worshipped side by side, the preacher taught social justice instead of damnation, and the gospel choir transported the congregation to a loftier realm.

On November 18, 1978, while investigating human rights abuses by a large cult led by James Warren “Jim” Jones (1931-1978), Congressman Leo Ryan (1925-1978) and several companions were murdered by Jones’ followers. Ryan had traveled to “Jonestown,” the cult’s compound in the South American country of Guyana, at the behest of his constituents, some of whom had family members in the cult, most of whom were black. The allegations were serious: Jonestown sounded more like a slave camp than a religious center. There was talk of beatings, forced labor and imprisonments, the use of drugs to control behavior, suspicious deaths, and even rehearsals for a mass suicide. Following Ryan’s murder, Jones hatched an unthinkable plan. He called his followers together and essentially ordered them to swallow a fruit drink that was apparently laced with cyanide [hence the phrase "drank the coolaide""]. He rationalized that the attack on the planes would bring harm to the residents of Jonestown. A few apparently objected, but in the end, more than 900 cultists, including more than 200 children, were soon lying lifeless on the ground. Jones, too, was dead, with a gunshot wound to the head.

For David Chidester, Jonestown recalls the American religious commitment to redemptive sacrifice, which for Jim Jones meant saving his followers from the evils of capitalist society. "Jonestown is ancient history," writes Chidester, but it does provide us with an opportunity "to reflect upon the strangeness of familiar... promises of redemption through sacrifice."

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Page last modified: 14-05-2017 18:32:53 ZULU