In Baguio, healing is believing

By Tess Raposas, Inter Press Service, Asia Times, 22 September 1999

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines—This mountain city in northern Philippines has always been known as the country's summer capital, drawing Manila residents seeking escape from the heat from March to May each year. In the past two decades, however, it has also gained fame—or notoriety, depending on who is making the assessment—for its faith healers.

Filipinos are no stranger to traditional medicine and the use of certain herbs to cure a variety of ailments. Albularyos, or herbalists, are often found in villages, especially those in remote areas, where they are respected for their learning. A few years ago, even the Department of Health decided to promote the use of herbs for common illnesses like colds and stomach aches, recognizing the efficacy of many medicinal plants.

But there are albularyos who go beyond the use of crushed leaves and fruit brews to cure their patients, among whom number foreigners. These albularyos are the faith healers who also employ psychic surgery, which they perform with their bare hands, and pranic or energy healing that features the use of electrical or magnetic gadgets.

Those who go to the faith healers are often suffering ailments more serious than the common cold, such as cancer. Others have undiagnosed illnesses, which the patients or their relatives believe have been caused by supernatural beings.

Baguio City's more prominent faith healers say the Philippines has a long history of faith healing, beginning with the pre-colonial babaylan or priestesses who would summon the gods to heal the sick. The province to which Baguio City belongs is also known for its people's belief in the powers of faith healing, with an annual festival especially dedicated to appease the gods and consequently cure those who are ill.

Not everyone in the area is a believer, however. The city's mayor, Mauricio Domogan, has cautioned the public about the fake healers who he says are only out to make money and charge exorbitant fees. Tourism Secretary Gemma Cruz Araneta, for her part, has made it clear that faith healing is not among her department's selling points for foreign visitors. It is because [the healers'] credibility has yet to be proven, and for many, many years, it has remained like that, Araneta said.

One of the more famous Baguio City healers, Jun Labo, was incarcerated in Russia last year after one of his patients there lodged a complaint against him. But there are others who say they have at least felt better after visiting one of Baguio's faith healers. Diabetic Philippe Guilhemotonia, a French-American software engineer from Seattle, says his condition improved through the energy healing and herbal concoctions of healer Placido Palitayan.

Guilhemotonia met Palitayan in the United States and it was there that the healer performed his magic. Says Guilhemotonia, who was on a recent visit to the Philippines specifically to learn the trade: My body's sugar level went down and I'm hoping this condition stays for good. He swears that he witnessed actual psychic surgery performed where bad cells were extracted from the patient's body, leaving no wounds.

Healers themselves say the belief of the patient that something positive will come out of a visit has a lot to do with a treatment's success. They add that the critical force that drives them to do what they do is faith, or what one of them describes as the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

We are not the healers, it is God, explained Lawrence Cecteng, who began to practice faith healing when he was only seven years old. Added Palitayan: Sincerity is what it takes to become a faith healer.

The healers in Baguio say they do not charge any fees, although donations are welcome. Most of those interviewed demurred from giving details about the donations, but some did say the most patients give is usually 500 pesos (almost $13), or more than three times the daily minimum wage in the Philippines.

From time to time, the Roman Catholic Church in this country has issued warnings about fake healers, but it has yet to take a strong stance against the practice. Part of the church's reluctance may stem from the fact that some priests of the church, to which some 80 percent of Filipinos belong, have been said to have healing powers. Father Lorenzo Abela of the Baguio-Benguet Vicariate points out that healing as a gift is mentioned the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. The early church created a prominent place for faith healing and even now, it is still seen as an act of charism [a religious gift].

Sociologist Hermanita Pelino of the University of the Philippines in Baguio meanwhile explains that faith healing actually plays a significant role in Philippine society, especially in rural areas. It promotes social order in a community, it is a unifying factor . . . and is a source of comfort whether the problem is physical or psychological, she said.

Even with doctors available, she says, it is still the healer who often gets consulted by people for their illnesses because they can easily relate more with the albularyo who speaks the same lingo and offers simple diagnoses and solutions.

With doctors, says Pelino, they are subjected to medical tests, about which they are often reluctant. On top of this, they have to spend so much more.

General practitioner Olivia Mandapat agrees with Pelino's observations. She adds, though, that faith healing is a paranormal phenomenon that cannot be explained medically and scientifically, and that it can even complement modern medicine in providing cures to ailments.

Still, Mandapat worries about instances when healers inflict cuts and incisions on patients, saying that these may well lead to infections. She points to the lack of monitoring over faith healing. Sometimes, a faith healer can do anything to a patient and the patient allows it.