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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The head of Haiti's voodoo religion appealed to authorities Thursday to halt bloody lynchings of voodoo priests by people who blame them for causing the Caribbean country's deadly cholera epidemic.
Since the epidemic started in mid-October, at least 45 male and female voodoo priests, known respectively as "houngan" and "manbo," have been killed. Many of the victims were hacked to death and mutilated by machetes, Max Beauvoir, the "Ati" or supreme leader of Haitian voodoo, told Reuters.
"They are being blamed for using voodoo to contaminate people with cholera," Beauvoir said.
He said the killers accused voodoo priests of spreading cholera by scattering powder or casting "spells" and complained that local police and government officials were not doing enough to halt the lynchings and punish the killers. Voodoo is recognized and protected by the constitution as one of Haiti's main religions.
"My call is to the authorities so they can assume their responsibilities," said Beauvoir, who fears more attacks against voodoo devotees. Most of the lynchings occurred in the southwest of Haiti but also in the center and the north.
Since emerging in central regions in October, the cholera epidemic has ripped through Haiti's poor population, still traumatized from a January earthquake. It has killed well over 2,500 people and affected all of the nation's 10 provinces.
Cholera is mainly spread by contaminated water and food.
As the epidemic death toll has risen, so too has popular fear and anger. Some Haitians have blamed Nepalese United Nations peacekeepers for bringing cholera to a Caribbean nation where the disease had been absent for decades.
The U.N. mission in Haiti maintains there is no conclusive evidence to back this accusation, despite a report by an expert contracted by the French government that linked the infection to latrines at the Nepalese camp located beside a river.
In November, there were anti-U.N. riots over the cholera, which continued to claim victims as the Western Hemisphere's poorest state held elections marred by confusion and fraud charges. Final vote results have still not been announced.
Beauvoir said he had discussed the anti-voodoo attacks with Haiti's Communications and Culture Ministry, which confirmed the killings this week. Minister Marie-Laurence Lassegue made a public appeal for the lynchings to end.
More than half of Haiti's nearly 10 million people are believed to practice voodoo, a religion brought from West Africa several centuries ago by slaves forced to work on the plantations of white masters in what was then the rich French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue.
Cholera, which causes virulent debilitating diarrhea, can kill in hours if left untreated. But it also can be easily cured through fast rehydration of the patient. Aid experts say the ignorance of many Haitians about the disease is one of the causes of the fears and suspicions surrounding the epidemic.
In at least one case in central Haiti, an angry mob worried about possible contagion destroyed a cholera treatment center being set up by foreign medical workers.
For this reason, public education about the disease and how it is spread and can be treated is essential, aid groups say.
"It is hardly surprising that people would be anxious about cholera when it appears in their communities for the first time," said Delphine Chedorge, head of mission in Haiti for Doctors Without Borders/ Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the foreign medical groups most active in fighting the epidemic.
"We also need to make people understand that opening new (cholera treatment centers) in or near their towns and villages can help stop the spread of the disease, protecting their communities, rather than endangering them," she said in an MSF statement.
Beauvoir said he suspected that representatives of some other religions might be stirring up popular fears against voodoo practitioners using the cholera as a pretext.
"I saw this coming. Since the earthquake some people have been blaming us, saying that we cast spells and did evil things which brought the earthquake as a punishment," he said.
After the January 12 earthquake, which wrecked much of the capital Port-au-Prince and killed more than 250,000 people, voodoo leaders had to defend themselves publicly against accusations by some Evangelical preachers that the voodoo religion somehow caused the natural disaster.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Bill Trott