x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The exorcist who saves marriages

Poor Egyptians suffering with problems they cannot resolve within their own communities are flocking to churches to cast out their demons.

CAIRO // Throughout the world, every married couple faces a typical set of challenges. Boredom, disagreement, infidelity and lack of sexual interest can all imperil, if not destroy, an otherwise happy coupling. But for Samaa Shaaban, 24, the problem was as obvious as it was atypical. She believes she is possessed by a demon, or jinn, that prevents her from consummating her two-month-old marriage with her husband, Ayman Salah, 31.

"I'm still a virgin and when my husband approaches me, I see and hear strange things, like snakes or people talking to me. In many instances, I lose consciousness," said Ms Shaaban, speaking from the small apartment she shares with her husband in Shubra Al Khaima, one of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods. "Once, the people who appear and speak to me told me that it's a magic spell and that only the woman who cast it can break it."

But Ms Shaaban insists she knows of no one who would try to hurt her otherwise happy marriage, and after several trips to local sheikhs failed to quell the demons, she decided to bridge Egypt's sometimes tense communal gulf. Two weeks ago, she visited the St Samaan Coptic Orthodox Church in the Cairo suburb of Manshiyet Naser, where Father Samaan Ibrahim performs mass exorcisms every Thursday evening in front of a crowd of hundreds of worshippers.

One one level, Ms Shaaban's experience belies reports of a growing rift here between Egypt's Coptic Christians and its Muslim majority, and reveals the tolerance inherent in Egypt's unique religious sensibilities. But it also shows a pervasive reality of sexual life here. For many of Egypt's poorest, the corporeal questions of sex and marriage are as vivid and mysterious as the supernatural world of spirits and demons.

"The Egyptian people, Muslim and Christian, have, between quotes, a deep spiritual life. Every group in its way," said Joseph Faltas, a Coptic theologian and researcher at Cairo's Orthodox Patristic Centre. "As a society here, not in Egypt but in the Middle East, sex and relations between man and woman are the most difficult thing to discuss. We don't have sexual education in our schools, even in our churches. That is the darkest area in our lives, especially in the lower levels" of society.

To hear Ms Shaaban and her husband describe it, the decision to seek religious intervention outside their Muslim community was an easy one, borne out of obvious necessity and permitted by a universal God. "We have a lot of Christian friends. We eat in each other's houses," said Mr Salah. "Entering a church is exactly like entering a mosque. It's a house of God." While several churches in Cairo offer such exorcisms, Ms Shaaban chose to enter what is certainly the most dramatic. The St Samaan Church is located in a natural cave in the Moqattam Hill outside of Cairo. It sits atop a mostly Christian community of rubbish collectors who live in the shadow of the hill among the rubbish they collect.

At one such session, Father Samaan began with an admonishment to the hundreds of Christians and Muslims who had gathered to witness and benefit from his "healings". "I will heal all of you who are possessed by Satan," he said into a microphone. "Those who are coming to chat, and not to pray, should leave." Then, turning his back to the assembly, Father Samaan blessed a few dozen bottles of spring water. "Whoever has a drop of water touch him or her can be certain that Jesus will heal them," he said. With that, he proceeded into the audience and began to toss water at the crowd.

What followed were paroxysms of shouting and screaming from one, then two, then dozens of mostly female worshippers until the cave was filled with sounds of terror that competed only with a tinny electric keyboard. As Father Samaan continued down the aisle, acolytes in uniform polo shirts bearing the church logo grabbed each woman and dragged her, kicking and convulsing, on to the main stage. Apparently unable to stand, each was laid on the floor and covered with a white sheet.

As the screaming from the audience died down, Father Samaan returned to the stage to begin his work. A Muslim woman was among the first. She began by volunteering her despair into the microphone. "My mother-in-law and my husband have been beating me for five years," she told Father Samaan from her position on the floor. The priest slapped her on the forehead with a small wooden cross. "Now I order you to get out of her left leg in the name of the Father!" Father Samaan shouted. He then told her to drink some of the blessed water. "How many are you?"

"I don't know," replied the woman. "We'll get the demons out of her. Raise her left leg, I order you!" said the priest to the demons. When the demons did not obey, one of the uniformed acolytes lifted the woman's leg. "In the name of the father and the son, I order you out!" There were more slaps. The woman screamed. The audience screamed. Then they applauded. In the work of a minute, the woman had been healed.

But the procedure was not yet complete. The woman, now standing to face the priest, was ordered to stamp her left leg to, in effect, squash the devil under foot. It proceeded like this for the next few dozen faithful, including Ms Shaaban, who had been lying on the stage. As the stage emptied, so did the audience, who gradually filed out of the cave. "It's not the role of the Church, but of Christ, to heal people," Father Samaan said before the service. "As Christ said in the Bible, you may cast out any demons in my name and heal in my name."

There are several references in the Bible where Jesus empowers his followers to exorcise demons and heal. Father Samaan was referring specifically to the New Testament's Book of Mark: "And these signs shall follow them that believe: In My name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;" (Mark 16:17). The cross, the priest explained, is placed on the head because it was the instrument used by Jesus to defeat demons.

But the ailments Father Samaan cures tend towards the sexual and the psychological. The primary concern for most comers, he said, is that evil spirits are having sexual relations with the married women they possess, causing them to lose interest in having sex with their husbands. This is infidelity, which can also be a problem between humans as well, said Father Samaan, who estimated that he performs about 30 to 50 exorcisms each week. Satan is responsible for adultery in all its forms.

But Father Samaan can cure other problems as well. "Inside the home, she might not be obeying her husband," he said. "But it could be other things, too, not only between a husband and wife. It could also show itself by making the woman too proud of herself." Until her demons disappear completely, Ms Shaaban said she will continue to attend the weekly services at St Samaan. Father Samaan says he will continue to exorcise the demons that he believes torture his followers.

Whether such demons exist or not, said Mr Faltas, the theologian, is not a matter of dispute. But whether Father Samaan and his methods are effective, is another question entirely - one that Mr Faltas hesitated to answer. "You have to understand how they are thinking," Mr Faltas said. "It is a much easier way than to go to a physician, a family counsellor or someone else. It is easier to excuse what they are doing by going to a priest."

Ahmed Shawky al Aqabawi, a professor of psychiatry at Al Azhar University, said the preference for the spiritual over the medical is not limited to the poor. "There is a sizeable percentage of all psychiatrically ill people who go to folk medicine people before they seek the help of a psychiatrist or general medicine," said Dr al Aqabawi, who added that such treatments can be helpful for minor cases that do not require medicine.

"We cannot deny that a good percentage of those who seek help through the folk medicine people get better. And we have an explanation for that. As you know, some of the psychiatric disorders are purely psychological phenomena that benefit very much from culturally acceptable ways, helping them through catharsis." mbradley@thenational.ae