National Times, Bella Counihan, October 19, 2009
If you happened to be in Canberra for the weekend but limited yourself to the usual tourist circuit, you missed out on quite the exorcism. Danny Nalliah, the head of Catch the Fire ministries – convinced that Canberra witches’ covens had cursed our federal government with blood sacrifices on Mount Ainslie – gathered some 50 Christians to the North Canberra mountain to drive Beelzebub out.
By 2009 we might be done with these kinds of ideas but there are still people desperate for answers no matter how ridiculous they sound. Meanwhile the mainstream sits on a secular high horse poking fun at such bizarre behaviour. But Nalliah has developed a presence in Australian public life, not only in the Christian evangelical world but also links in the political world (see here and Peter Costello’s message to a ministry gathering on Australia day, here).
Media reports of this “prayer offensive” have become the darling of the off-beat section, ridiculing the event and its prayer vs. black spells premise. But this being the age where you can be believe in spells and be totally in touch with media and the interwebs, Catch the Fire has cottoned on to the rest of Australia’s mocking pretty quickly (see here). In response, Pastor Danny went on radio to explain this act of “spiritual warfare”. He said witches have cast spells on our politicians to make more liberal laws about homosexuals and abortions and if we don’t do something soon (like a mass prayer to ask God to get back on our side) we’re going to have more natural disasters, including bush fires.
Witches of course do exist, although the more PC way to describe the group these days is Wiccans or Pagans and according to the Pagan Awareness Network, the pagan religion is one of the fastest growing religions in Australia. In the 2006 census, 1000 declared themselves Druidists, 15,000 belonged to the pagan religion and 8,000 were Wiccans. The total of all of these rivalled the amount of declared atheists (although fence-sitting agnostics totalled 20,000 and those that chose to declare no religion or did not state were about 6 million). It seems more people believe in Magick than emphatically believe there isn’t a God.
Fiona Patten of the Australian Sex Party issued a statement before Saturday’s event pointing out further strange statistics. She said since Kevin Rudd became PM, the number of MPs in the Parliamentary Christian Fellowship had risen from 75 to 84 which is “way out of proportion to the 9 per cent of the Australian public who claim to be committed weekly worshippers”. The Australian Sex Party said it would protest at the event, just to add to the bizarreness, and the Pagan Network also intended to show up – but not in protest. They would have people on the ground listening “very carefully”, presumably in case anything was incited against witches and the pagan community by Nalliah who has already landed himself in hot water for similar incidents (see here).
Apart from a protest and pious people gathered on a hill, what does one expect of an exorcism? It was very easy to conjure up Hollywood associations, spinning heads and all. The reality was the weirdest festival you’ve ever been to. The crowd of 200 divided neatly into about a third Catch the Fire followers, another third gay and atheist activists, Wiccans and metal t-shirt wearing young people and the remainder were a bewildered group of observers in the circus. These three groups, I wager, will never likely be seen together again.
Entering into the crowd of Nalliah devotees, Christian and Australian flags waving, was akin to going to a pokies venue on Christmas eve – people desperate, alienated and confused participating in something that gives them hope. Nalliah at the centre of it dressed in white suit jacket, shades and a small mega phone permanently in front of his face spoke much of forgiveness and healing of the nation, interjected only with the odd “hallelujah” and “praise Jesus”. Many in the crowd spoke in tongues or mumbled prayers, the first of a series of communions on different parts of the hill, the relocation of the prayers perhaps to do with the spiritual mapping (which would be?).
In the background near the “black altar” – a communication tower further up the hill – were protesters singing It’s Raining Men and waving placards. Into the middle of the Catch the Fire group walked a young gay man who stripped down to his underwear and threw his arms in the air, facing off with Nalliah and his entourage. Other protesters adorned themselves in rainbow flags, witches’ hats and t-shirts with slogans: “I am what you are afraid of”.
Pre-exorcism, Nalliah explained to his followers “If the Muslims can go all the way to Mecca, are we willing to sacrifice a bit to save our nation?” Well apparently yes, many are willing to sacrifice their time and energy to go to a car park at the top of a Canberra hill to fight invisible spirits affecting our policy makers. Among the reasons for being there given by observers, one man expressed concern about Nalliah’s influence (he was relieved the “sane people” had outnumbered Nalliah’s group). And one witch/Wiccan repeated the truism that there’s not usually much on in Canberra.