Moroccans hail 'miracle worker'

Skhirat, Morocco - Thousands of people queue up every day with a bottle of water or bag of sugar to see Morocco's latest sensation - a traditional healer.

Torbi el Mekki, the man being hailed as the miracle healer of Skhirat, a village about 30km south of the capital, Rabat, says he can cure any disease from HIV/Aids to cancer.

When pilgrims reach the front of the long line, they are ushered forward by his assistants.

It is a very quick process: Mr Mekki shakes their hands; touches their bottle of water or bag of sugar - which he says will cure them of all their ills - and blesses them as they go past.

"I do this in the name of God. I do not do it for money," he says dismissing suggestions that he is a charlatan.

"If I wanted to do it for money I would gain billions every day. But I don't need money because I am already rich from land that I inherited."

Some people say he makes money out of the sugar and water that they have to buy.

Vendors sell bottled water along the roadside to eager pilgrims making their way to Skhirat.

But Father Mekki, as he is known, denies that he is exploiting people.

"God gave me this talent so I have to use it.

"Even some doctors have come to see me and you will see cases of people who have been cured. There was a man with cancer that came all the way from France and now he is cured."

'Healing water'

After their blessing, Father Mekki tells his followers to drink to their water once its smell changes to benefit from its curative properties.

Those who have drunk the water seem convinced that he has succeeded where clinical doctors have failed.

"I was diagnosed with breast cancer - I had a lump that was 7cm wide. But after I saw this healer I went back to my doctor and he couldn't find the cancer," one woman said.

"He said that the lump had gone down to just 7mm and was no longer malignant."

Another woman has similar claims about her brain tumour.

"I went for an operation and although they took out a piece of the tumour, they could not remove all of it. But since I went to this man, 60% of the tumour has now gone," she said.

A hepatitis sufferer told me she was so impressed with Father Mekki, she had been to see him more than 40 times and felt much better for it.

Placebo effect

But Dr Mohammed Mehdi Nafiaa from the Bab Khemis Hospital in Sale is wary of so-called miracle healers.

"We cannot say he's miraculous. He is a healer like many others before him. In most cases they fail. It's a question of time," he says.

Their claims pose problems for the medical profession, he says, as many healers tell patients to stop taking their medicine.

"It's very dangerous: a while ago there was an epileptic patient who had taken drugs to stabilise himself. Another healer told him to stop his treatment; he did, but after several days he died."

He admits that the placebo effect can be a powerful healing tool, but must work alongside conventional medicine.

"People are free to see healers but they should not stop their treatment."

According to Islamic scholars only the prophets - ending with Mohammad - had miraculous powers; other healers are therefore considered false prophets.

Yet the man from Skhirat says he can cure the sick.

And his popularity shows that while Morocco is pursuing a path to development and modernity, the power of superstition cannot be underestimated.