Driving out the devil is a ratings winner in Congo

Kinshasa, Congo (DRC) - The young Congolese woman lay screaming on the dusty ground, arms thrashing wildly as a white-gowned preacher gripped her head and prayed.

As she fainted, thousands of spectators in Kinshasa's Tata Raphael stadium roared with excitement - yet another public exorcism was reaching its climax.

In the run-down arena that once hosted the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, today it is the battle to save souls that draws in the crowds.

Editing footage of the spectacle in a television studio, the Rev Augustin Betu, an impresario of some of Congo's top devil-hounding talent, watched his colleague's performance approvingly

"The preacher is driving out the demons," he said. "They have taken possession of her and only the power of Jesus can send them away."

Although the Democratic Republic of Congo will next month hold its first democratic elections since its independence from Belgium in 1960, televised exorcisms rather than political debates are dominating the airwaves in a country where the majority of the population still believes in black magic, the broadcast networks are saturated with a dozen religious channels competing for converts, most of them owned by Christian cults led by charismatic preachers.

Mixing the razzmatazz and showmanship of American-style televangelism with traditional animist beliefs, the exorcisms are the centrepiece of most of the stations' output.

At his television studio on a hillside overlooking the capital, Mr Betu - the manager of Radio Télévision De L'Armée Eternelle - was sifting through footage of various "miracles", including a blind woman apparently being returned to sight and a disabled man, who seemed to regain the use of his legs.

"If someone is possessed by a demon, it is often because another person has put a curse on them," he said. "Only prayer can drive out the evil spirit."

All across the sprawling city of Kinshasa, shops offering protective fetishes against evil curses compete alongside churches run by the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Congregations gather daily in their thousands to witness exorcisms. Many are performed by self-appointed pastors, who are keen to distance themselves from traditional African beliefs and talk up their Christian credentials.

"The only tradition we are a part of is the Christian one," said Prophet Naama Sikatenda, the head of the Church of the Living God, which claims to have 65,000 members at more than 200 churches across this central African state. "We are not interested in fetishes and witchcraft. We use only the power of prayer," he said.

But not everyone is convinced. Willy Kabwe, the editor of the Congolese daily newspaper Le Potential, said many exorcists had switched to Christianity because it offered more potent powers of casting out.

"The irony is that many of these pastors were witch doctors who have embraced Christianity because the tribal beliefs are now seen as primitive," he said. "Many of their congregations come to the church because it is seen as a more powerful ally if someone tries to curse you.

"They retain the same beliefs, but do it under the guise of Christianity."

He pointed out that while most of their followers remain impoverished, in a country ravaged by decades of war, many television preachers had become wealthy celebrities.

The high profile of the television shows has finally prompted Congolese authorities to begin taking a close interest in preaching practices - after years of pressure from human rights groups.

One channel was shut down after its leader was accused of inciting his followers to attack members of another cult. And Prophet Sikatenda has drawn criticism for claiming to have cured Aids victims.

Human rights groups have long claimed that - away from the gaze of television cameras - exorcisms involve the abuse of orphaned children who have been thrown out of their homes, accused of witchcraft after the untimely death of a parent or other family hardship.

Joel Kabongo, the head of Radio Télé Sango Mala (Good News TV), a religious channel independent of the cults, said: "Whether what they are doing is magic or fabrication I don't know. But they are exploiting vulnerable, naive people."