| FAFE, Portugal
FAFE, Portugal (Reuters Life!) - Surrounded by clean hospital beds in his new Occult Sciences Center in northern Portugal, Fernando Nogueira makes exorcism sound almost mundane.
A metal plaque above one door says, matter-of-factly, "Exorcism room." Inside, a pale, female patient lies under a blanket, a crucifix hangs on the wall alongside dozens of newspaper clips about Nogueira's paranormal abilities.
"She is suicidal. This is basically my emergency room," says 46-year-old Nogueira, popularly known as The Sorcerer of Fafe. Fafe is the place where he started practicing trance mediumship, and later also exorcisms, around 25 years ago. Before that, he spent some time in a psychiatric clinic as a patient.
There are six more rooms in Portugal's first and only occult center with in-patient admission -- and Nogueira plans further expansions. Patients normally stay up to three days.
"Many of those who come here pass out during treatment and they used to spend hours on the floor on top of an overcoat while they recovered their senses," said the bald, stout man wearing comfortable casual clothes.
"Here they can be treated with dignity," he said.
Crucifixes and wooden statues of Catholic saints stand behind a large glass wall like in a museum in his modern reception office and a line of half a dozen patients forms outside. A testament to the sorcerer's popularity.
Nogueira pays his taxes as a parapsychologist although he considers himself a medium who communicates with spirits. The center functions in the backyard of his home and as a private, non-medical practice requires no special license, he says.
Fafe municipal authorities declined to comment on Nogueira, saying only "that it's a matter for those who believe in him."
Although the Iberian country is strongly Catholic, popular beliefs in spells, witches and evil spirits have endured for centuries in the north, full of semi-isolated mountain hamlets.
Nogueira's center, where he receives over 300 people a month, is a novelty which certainly has its critics.
Dr. Alexandre Castro Caldas, neurology and brain specialist and ex-President of the International Neuropsychological Society said the use of such faith healers can be dangerous.
"Spirit possessions are inventions, they have no scientific basis. Sometimes people who have been treated by doctors for a long time turn to a person like that and stop taking prescribed medicines, which leads to some pretty bad results," he said.
"I blame failures in the medical system, when doctors don't show the necessary interest and care for the patient."
Nogueira argues that he never intervenes with a prescribed medicine treatment, only handling "the spiritual part."
He describes himself as a devout Catholic and most of the rites and prayers he uses are Roman Catholic. But he doesn't think much of the Vatican's own exorcists.
"Priests have no spiritual power for exorcisms, only those with the same powers to contact the spirits as mine," he said.
The Vatican states that only priests are allowed to perform exorcisms and only with permission of the local bishops.
"The Church really doesn't approve of the Sorcerer of Fafe, but it's an open society, what can we do?" a senior local priest told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.
Joaquim Carreira das Neves, a respected Portuguese theologian, said that although the Bible mentions exorcism, "one has to read the Bible within the modern context."
"Some priests and people outside the Church practice those rites, but a critical view leads us to a conclusion that they are trying to do a hospital's job," he said.
NO HOLLYWOOD THRILLS
Nogueira says most of his patients do not require exorcism, the name for a process in which a spirit that possesses someone is cast out. Nogueira says exorcism is the last resort.
"Normally, the spirit would say what it wants through the medium and leave after its conditions are met."
Nogueira, who has four years of primary school, says working with spirits has few of the thrills portrayed in films like the 1973 horror classic "The Exorcist."
"Those who say they see a spirit resembling a person or a scary beast, that is all lies. Even I don't see them," Nogueira said. Speaking in unnatural voices or trying to climb walls is quite common among the "possessed patients," but the same symptoms often can be a sign of hysteria, he admits.
"I can tell the difference. If it's not my department I send them off to a psychiatrist immediately," he says.
He says, for example, that 17-year-old patient Sonia Carvalho suffers from an "evil eye" that is aggravating an existing medical condition and that the spell was paid for by an envious friend.
Sonia is accompanied by her mother, Maria, a housewife.
"We went to see the doctors first. She was having bad headaches and fainted a lot. They ran the tests but all they could say was 'it's the nervous system'," Maria said.
Nogueira puts Sonia into what seems to be a state of unconsciousness and, whispering prayers, pokes her with an oversized key and crucifix. Sonia trembles in slight convulsions on the ward's carpet. After a few minutes, Nogueira wakes her up and tucks her, still shivering, back into bed.
There is no fee for staying in the center and Nogueira says people pay "what their conscience tells them." His spacious villa and a big car suggest business is pretty good.
He says that money is not the main reason he treats people. The work also helps to keep himself healthy.
"What I have is a gift and a grave spiritual disease. Before my gift was discovered by a Spanish medium, I used to land in a psychiatric clinic a lot because of faints I had when being close to those spiritually sick," said Nogueira.