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Head of Haiti’s Voodoo Faith Dies at 79

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Max Gesner Beauvoir, “National Ati” or spiritual leader of Haiti’s voodoo faith, died Sunday in the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince, according to the AFP. He was 79.

Beauvoir, trained as a biochemist, attained the title of Supreme Servitur in 2008. The role has historically been a fiercely protected one, designed to defend Haiti’s unique voodoo tradition from Protestant churches and Evangelical preachers.

“My position as supreme chief in voodoo was born out of a controversy,” Beauvoir told the New York Times in an interview in 2008. “Today, voodooists are at the bottom of society. They are virtually all illiterate. They are poor. They are hungry. You have people who are eating mud, and I don’t mean that as a figure of speech.”

Voodoo has faced attacks and ridicule from many corners. In 2010, for example, American televangelist Pat Robertson claimed the earthquake that flattened much of Haiti and killed hundreds of thousands was the result of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made when they rose against their French colonizers in the nineteenth century. Voodoo practitioners faced lynchings later that year, accused of spreading the deadly cholera epidemic.

The faith was brought to the island country by African slaves in the 1600s and 1700s. It was banned by the French for its mystical, supernatural elements.

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Write to Tanya Basu at tanya.basu@time.com