Philippine priest in ancient battle with 'demons'

MANILA, April 14, 2011 (AFP) - A blood-curdling scream echoes through the Roman Catholic chapel in Manila as Father Jose Francisco Syquia says a prayer of exorcism over a Satanic cult member believed to be possessed by the devil.

"It's very painful," the woman cries in an unearthly voice, her body contorting in an attempt to break free from the tight grasp of Syquia's assistants. After a few minutes she falls silent, her limp body exhausted.

The case is among hundreds documented on video and kept by Syquia, who heads the Manila Archdiocese's Office of Exorcism -- the only one that exists in the Catholic nation of 94 million people.

"She would have levitated had she not been restrained," Syquia said of the woman in the video, portions of which were shown to AFP during a rare interview at his office in the basement of a seminary in Manila.

Syquia believes he is in the frontline of the battle between good and evil on earth.

"There is a great dramatic increase of possessions right now," said the 44-year-old priest. "More and more the demons are gaining a foothold into this society."

While non-believers often joke about the devil, and demonic possessions are trivialised by Hollywood, Syquia insisted the torment suffered by those he had healed was real.

"I have seen scratches suddenly appearing on their skin, of inverted crosses on the forehead. These persons would be conscious at the time, and they tell me its like razor cutting from the inside of the skin," he said.

Demons could manifest themselves in many ways and could enter the human soul through occult and New Age teachings that were becoming increasingly popular in the general community, Syquia said.

The Catholic Church's exorcism ministry has throughout history tended to operate under a cloud of controversy and secrecy.

Syquia said a conspiracy of silence had permeated the church in the past, with its leaders wary of being branded as mediaeval as modern science tended to classify possessions as medical conditions.

But Pope Benedict XVI had recently issued fresh guidelines encouraging more exorcisms and for the church to be more open about the issue, he said.

There are about 10 Filipino priests authorised to perform exorcisms in the Philippines, but only Syquia has a fully operational office that is backed by a staff of eight, including a lawyer and psychologists.

In his office, a bookshelf is stacked with tomes on the paranormal, while a glass-encased cabinet contains his tools for spiritual warfare -- his vestments, holy water, the crucifix, and a saint's holy relic.

The most potent among his weapons is a copy of the Roman Ritual for Exorcism, a compilation of prayers used by all the saints to expel and defeat demons through generations.

A figurine of St Michael the Archangel trampling Lucifer sits on a shelf, a graphic reminder of his extraordinary job.

Syquia was ordained only 11 years ago, after he had already obtained a degree in psychology at one of the Philippines' leading Catholic universities.

The second of four sons of a former diplomat, he said he left a comfortable life in one of Manila's exclusive, gated communities and employment in a family-owned business after he heard God's call to serve the church.

Growing up in a modern household, he and his four brothers did not believe in possessions -- which were made famous in the 1970s Hollywood film "The Exorcist".

But Syquia said he had always been fascinated by paranormal activities and devoured entire books on the subject.

After he was ordained in 2000, Syquia said he was posted at a Manila church where, outside its premises, occult practitioners -- including spirit mediums, oracles and faith healers -- also thrived.

His first case came when a man singled him out from a group of priests and asked for deliverance after confessing that he had been deep into occult practices.

How the man knew his name was a mystery to Syquia, although he said deep in his heart he knew -- just a week earlier he had begun studying a book on exorcism that he had bought long ago.

Syquia sought guidance from the the local bishop, who promptly granted him the authority to carry out an exorcism guided by his knowledge of psychology.

"I realised God was leading me to this path. I have treated hundreds and hundreds of cases since then," he said.

Syquia recalled an accomplished female doctor who said she was befriended by demons that had appeared to her as benign dwarves that showered her with good luck in the form of financial rewards.

Her troubles began when she decided to return to the Catholic Church and offer all her blessings to God.

Soon after, the demons took over her body for hours at a time, while unexplained paranormal activity began terrorising members of her family, Syquia said.

"When the time came to bless her with holy water a voice that wasn't hers shouted for us to stop," he said.

"What really scared me was that this was the first time that I saw something very alien in her eyes. I was looking at something else. It was totally evil."

The voice taunted Syquia and told him to return to his mansion and rich family, personal details that were unknown to those in the room, he said.

"We will never leave her," the demon said, according to Syquia.

Syquia said a barrage of prayers eventually forced the demon out, with the woman now a good friend and church volunteer.

"With God by your side, you can do no wrong," he said.

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