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What in God's Name?!

Jennifer Carpenter has the title role in
Jennifer Carpenter has the title role in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which deals with the aftermath of an exorcism conducted on Anneliese Michel, inset. (By Diyah Pera -- Screen Gems; Inset By Dpa/picture-alliance)

Michel's recorded voice can still send shivers up your spine. It is the voice of a demon, growling, barking, inhuman -- and surprisingly like the voice of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," which had been released in Germany two years earlier.

Sometimes the demons identified themselves -- as Cain, Nero, Judas, Lucifer, Hitler and others -- and even answered the exorcists' questions, explaining what was wrong with the church or why they were in Hell. "People are stupid as pigs," spat Hitler. "They think it's all over after death. It goes on." Judas said Hitler was nothing but a "big mouth" and had "no real say" in Hell.

Anyway, it wasn't the exorcism that killed Anneliese Michel.

At some point she began talking increasingly about dying to atone for the wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the modern church, and refused to eat. Though she had received treatment for epilepsy, by this time, at her own request, doctors were no longer being consulted.

She, her parents and the exorcists decided to rely completely on exorcism. By the time Michel died of starvation, she weighed only 68 pounds.

After her death, the Anneliese Michel trial also set reason against faith.

"I personally believe that this case was handled in such a way as to play down the reality of the Devil," says Norbert Baumert, Jesuit priest and chairman of the theological commission of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Germany, which cannot perform exorcism but practices "prayers for deliverance" from "demonic nuisance."

The trial went to the heart of faith: If the Bible is true, then the miracles must have really happened, and Satan must be real.

But it's not easy preaching the existence of the Devil to one of the most secularized countries in Europe. A study by research institute Infratest and published in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel last month showed that even among churchgoers, approximately a third of baptized Catholics and half of baptized Protestants do not believe in life after death.

"I understand the complaint that German theologians are too rational," says Klemens Richter, professor for liturgical science in Muenster. "But exorcism is all about helping the sick. In Anneliese Michel's case, the sickness was supported. When I go to a patient and support her in her delusion, she gets the impression that she really is possessed."

Exorcism is far more widespread today than most people imagine. According to Richter, there are about 70 practicing exorcists in France and just as many employed in Italy. In July this year, a congress in Poland was reportedly attended by about 350 practicing exorcists.

Germany is the major European exception. Here, there are only two or three practicing exorcists, and though they have the approval of their bishops, they operate in secret.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company