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Vatican threatens to cast out the exorcists of Goa: The Church is worried about the unconventional zeal with which some members have been pursuing the Evil One, Tim McGirk writes from Nuvem

THE boy was let loose for the exorcism. His keepers at the Christ Ashram kept a lock and chain around his ankle in case the boy, aged 11, needed to be swiftly restrained again. 'It's usually during the monsoon when he gets violent,' said Eugenio Gonsalves, an ex-seminarian, a large man in a white smock with a sweet voice and long wavy hair. 'Seven men cannot hold him. Only Miguel can.' Eugenio motioned to an old spidery man in torn shorts leaning against a tree with a bucket of water.

In front of Miguel women and men crawled on their hands and knees, cutting themselves in the red gravel. Some endured the pain silently, others groaned like wounded animals. As they passed under the tree, Miguel drenched them with water that he had blessed with his healing powers. Two stray dogs wandered up, quizzically sniffing a man who was banging his head repeatedly against a crucifix.

Most of Miguel's devotees are illiterate tribesmen, but an older Goan, a retired civil servant, perhaps, showed me a ragged Time magazine article on an astrophysicist's new theory about the universe's origin. I thought he was one of the sensible ones. 'Have you seen it?' he asked excitedly, pointing upwards. 'A giant cross in the sky. So big it blocks out the sun.' It was late afternoon in Goa, southern India, and my view was of a sky without clouds or flying crosses.

In that moment of distraction Miguel had made the boy crouch and he was thumping him on the back with his knee and splashing him with water. 'See?' said Eugenio. 'The boy's quiet now.' But the boy had been quiet before, too. Everyone seemed to be enveloped in their own private and very bizarre play. A woman whose dress looked like the plumage of an endangered species took up a painful position, leaning against a large cross embedded with nails. And Eugenio's sweet voice, promising redemption through prayer and pain, sailed above the chaos.

This spectacle is enacted every Friday and Sunday outside the village of Nuvem. Hundreds of Goans used to flock to Miguel's exorcisms, but now only 30 or so turn up. This is not necessarily because Miguel has chased all the demons out of Goa, a former Portuguese colony. Instead, the terrified Goans who visit Miguel's Christ Ashram must choose between the lesser of two great evils: the Devil or excommunication from the Catholic Church.

Priests in Goa have warned their congregation that anyone caught visiting Miguel's Christ Ashram would be denied Communion, could not be married and would be refused Catholic burial rites. Still they come. Father Charles Borges, from St Xavier's Institute for Historical Research, said: 'You often have these aberrations. But these people make God more accessible. That is their attraction.'

The Catholic church in Goa has been dampening the excessive zeal of its converts ever since the last century, when an ecstatic woman bit a toe off the cadaver of St Francis Xavier.

Even today, especially among tribals and the lower-caste Indians unable to shake off the stigma of untouchability even by converting to Christianity, miraculous visions are almost commonplace. One woman claims she shook hands with an angel. In the village of Velim, in 1987, a drunken tribal named Antonio said he saw Jesus and Mary peering from the roof of his shack. This was accompanied by water gushing from a banana tree and the imprint of the Virgin on a roof tile. Two weeks later, tens of thousands of pilgrims flooded to Antonio's shack, even though the Church was sceptical about the drunkard's vision.

Most of the Goan miracles and cases of demon possession occur among the Kunbi tribesmen. Miguel the exorcist is a Kunbi: his power came, he claims, one day when he was working in a quarry. A Hindu labourer had found a tiny crucifix, and Miguel had found a Hindu idol. They traded and Miguel soon realised the crucifx had healing properties.

Though caste should not exist among Christians, it does. Most of the priests are Brahmins, forcibly converted 300 years ago by the Portuguese. Some sociologists say the apparitions and exorcisms are a method of self-affirmation for the Kunbis. Bernadette Gomes, a sociologist teaching in the Goan capital of Panaji, said: 'In these cases, the Kunbis are the main celebrants. Whereas in church, the low-caste Kunbis are afraid of the upper-caste priests.'

Some Catholic priests claim Miguel's gift is god-given, but the Vatican thinks otherwise. After the Goan church authorities scared away many of the Christ Ashram's followers, Miguel and Eugenio wrote to the Pope for help. Some reports said the Pope, who has made a point of keeping Catholicism undiluted by native influences, decided instead to excommunicate Miguel, following advice from Goa's bishop. Eugenio denied this: 'The Church has misunderstood us.' I asked to see the Vatican's reply, but Eugenio told me the Pope's letter was locked in a trunk. 'We don't want it eaten by white ants,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)