When religious belief clashes with science...

Cape Town, South Africa - A 17-year-old Benoni girl - who claims to have seen the mother of Jesus - is telling her pilgrims to look into the setting sun to witness a beautiful miracle.

But a renowned medical doctor, with a lifetime of experience, says people should never look into the sun with the naked eye.

In one corner is a teenager who has attracted global interest because she has reported spiritual sightings. She has no proof of these apparitions, except for her faith and that of her visitors.

Francesca Zackey speaks in tongues, which only she can understand, and her family are convinced the water supply at their home has turned into a holy oil.

Zackey believes that by looking into the burning star, believers will see it spin while an amazing kaleidoscope of colours pour out around the Virgin Mary herself. To protect delicate eyes against the hydrogen giant, Mary places a protective shield in front of the sun.

In the other corner is ophthalmologist Dr Percy Amoils, who bravely operated on former president Nelson Mandela in 1994.

The doctor, also a world-known inventor, has received the highest honour in the country: the Order of Mapungubwe. He has also received prestigious awards for his work in England and America. He lives in a world where there is no room for speculation: a textbook world of science and biology, where only proven facts count.

Amoils was horrified at the fact that religion was causing people to damage their eyes - something he had previously only seen after eclipses of the sun.

He used words like "disaster" and "tragedy", and called for urgent exposure to stop people looking into the sun in the name of religion.

What shocked me most when I visited Francesca at her home was that she and her mother Bridgette could not comprehend the danger of looking into the flaming star.

Bridgette said the sun was still spinning and she looked into it every day. Francesca seemed unshaken by the fact that a woman whom she had "blessed" now faces a possible life of darkness.

Should Nassif not get her sight back, which is a very real and frightening possibility, her life will be changed forever.

Francesca did say she was praying for Nassif, but there was not a spark of guilt in her eyes. She firmly believes she is a vessel for the divine message. After all, the sighting of Mary inside the sun is a phenomenon that has been recorded around the globe.

Strangely, when I interviewed Nassif, 37, she did not express any anger towards the teen.

"At least Francesca has got people praying again. People have been losing their way," she said.

Just before the paper was published, her sister Sandra - who also looked into the sun but was lucky not to have suffered any damage - said: "Please just write that we still believe in Our Lady."

If one takes a sober look at what happened, it boils down to a religious woman - hungry for a miracle - staring into the sun and losing her sight. But her faith remains intact. Such is the power of religion. Such is the danger of religion.

Faith, for so many people, is a wonderful thing. It gives hope and comfort, and brings people together. But if it is abused by fanatics, it mutates into an ugly weapon that can be used to spark atrocities.

People argue that, with free will, people have choices. If told to jump into a fire, surely common sense will prevail, they say. But this is an underestimation of religious indoctrination.

Yes, people have choices. But sometimes belief is too strong.

With hundreds of people flocking to see Francesca each day, the church must take serious note of the latest developments.