An estimated 500 Ethiopians have moved to Mount Entoto and its surrounding areas in the past few years, drawn to the holy water. The newcomers are HIV-positive people living in a country that until recently had no access to antiretroviral treatment. For many, holy water is still their only source of hope as AIDS takes over their bodies.

Atnafu Betseha, 32, is an Ethiopian Orthodox priest at the holy water site of St. Mary’s Church. His job is to administer the water and pray for the healing of the more than 700 pilgrims that arrive here every day. Betseha spoke with ICIJ on his own behalf — his answers do not represent the views of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

How long have you been a priest?

Fifteen years.

How long have you worked here?

I have worked here for 13 years. Holy water cures even HIV.

Where does the power of holy water reside?

It’s God intervention what makes holy water so powerful. It is the power of God and the Holy Spirit of God.

How does it work?

When they enter the room they scream because of the bad spirits. Then they take [off] their clothes and I call the power of God.

Do HIV-positive people come here?

Every day I see HIV patients here. After the holy water treatment they have come up with a negative test. But it’s difficult to know how many have been cured because most people don’t want to disclose the results of the tests. Most people keep it a secret; they only tell the results to the Virgin Mary.

Do you advise people to try to get antiretroviral drugs?

It’s not for me to decide whether they take the drugs or the holy water. It’s up to them to decide.

Which of the two is most effective in your opinion?

I believe holy water is more effective.

How many people come here on average?

We receive 700 to 800 people every day. The most common problem we see is evil spirits. It’s difficult for us to know how they got the spirits. We don’t know where the evil spirits come from.

How long does it take to get cured?

It depends on each person’s faith. Sometimes it takes one day to cure a person, and sometimes it takes longer.

How long does it take to cure an HIV person?

I don’t know.

Who cures the people with evil spirits?

The Virgin Mary cures the people with evil spirits.

Do people pay to get the treatment with holy water?

They don’t pay, but when they get cured or whenever they want, they give presents or money to the church.

What’s the Orthodox Church position on the origin of HIV?

I think HIV comes from evil spirits. It is caused by having sex with multiple partners.

Is it punishment from God in your opinion?

Yes. I do believe that it’s punishment.

Ethiopian reporter Kaleyesus Bekele was the Amharic-speaking translator for this interview.