That old Orthodox “evil eye”? (updated)

eye sickThe other day, I added an “Orthodoxy” category to our filing system here at GetReligion.org — for a perfectly logical reason.

Since many readers know that I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity, many readers — Orthodox and otherwise — keep sending me links to interesting (and often bizarre) mainstream news reports about the faith. Some of them are quite good. Others are, well, not very good.

What, pray tell, am I supposed to do with this hellish, horrid Fox News report out of Australia? Here’s the lede:

Two men were arrested Friday and charged with 230 sex offenses police said they committed during prayer sessions with a woman who believed one of the men could cure her of a religious curse.

The men, aged 61 and 38 years, are highly regarded members of Sydney’s Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities, New South Wales state police said in a statement. Officials declined to release their names.

What in the world does “highly regarded” mean? Are we dealing with fallen clergy? Corrupt laypeople? The story calls one of the accused a “spiritual mentor,” yet that is not a term used in Orthodoxy. Again, there are no facts.

Then, as the story ends, we read:

The Coptic Church is the native Christian church of Egypt, and has a doctrine similar to the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches. … (Both) women come from religious families and were raised to follow the Orthodox faith, which includes a belief in the evil eye — a glance believed to harm those on whom it falls.

Say what?!?

There are all kinds of superstitions common in many ethnic groups and cultures and I would never deny that that is the case — to one degree or another — in some “Orthodox lands.” But since when has the ancient Orthodox Christian faith included some kind of theology of the “evil eye”? Where in the world did this statement come from?

UPDATE: Here is a very helpful comment from a reader, worth pulling out front here for everyone. Father Theodore writes:

I saw this and followed it back to the Australian press. It looks like they got their information from a press release from the New South Wales Police. The next day the NSW police released this:

CLARIFICATION Regarding two men charged with 229 sexual offences during prayer sessions Friday, 12 Sep 2008 04:13pm

In a media release issued this morning reference was made to two men arrested over sexual offences as being “highly regarded members of the Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities”. Investigators would like to clarify there is no evidence linking either of the two men to the Coptic community or the Coptic Church.

A victim and witness in the investigation told police the 61-year-old accused man had claimed to be a high-ranking member of the Coptic community. This claim is denied by Coptic community leaders and the Coptic Church in Sydney.

Clarification regarding references made to belief in the “evil eye”: This is not an accepted belief within the Greek Orthodox faith or Coptic Orthodox faith.”

Some media, such as ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Company have updated their stories and now say the the Greek Orthodox Church has no knowledge of the men either. Others news outlets have not updated anything. It looks like a case of the media just printing what they are told without checking the facts.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Margaret

    As a convert to Orthodox Christianity, I do so appreciate your posting and responding to such as this!

    Also appreciate your adding the Orthodoxy category to your filing system here.

    God be praised! May God bless all you do!

  • Mark V.

    Again, it’s an issue of superficial reporting. As you said, it’s a failure to distinguish between folk “religion” and the Orthodox Tradition. I also did not see any official connection the two offenders had with the Church.

  • Martha

    Usually we get this on the Roman Catholic side. Yes, we have these too: they’re called pishogues, which roughly means “charm, spell, superstition”.

    Folk religion such as the belief in the ‘Brat Bride’ (which my grandfather swore by, having a great devotion to St. Bridget) that you hang out a black item of clothing or a black cloth tied to the front door on the night before February 1st (feast of St. Brigid, the ancient Celtic Imbolc). This will be blessed by St. Brigid as she passes and this cures headaches.

    Here’s a link to these kinds of beliefs in the local area:

    http://www.claneire.com/connected/default.asp?com=dfba&org=&id=4&ACT=5&content=17&mnu=4

    However, if any reporter wrote a story claiming that “Roman Catholicism includes a belief in fairy forts” or the like, it would definitely invite correction.

    That’s the trouble with belonging to a denomination with a professed faith in the sacramental and the miraculous; outsiders find it very difficult to distinguish between items – you believe in invoking the aid of the saints, so of course you believe in curses cast by witches! And both beliefs are of equal weight and officially recognised! :-)

  • http://palamas.info Fr Gregory

    The Book of Needs published by St Tikhon’s Seminary includes a prayer for protection against the evil eye. I do not have the text in front of me, but in the prayer, the “evil eye” is any instance of one person looking upon another with malice or sinful intent. For example, not only a desire to harm the person, but also jealousy or lust. The idea, again based on my recollection of the prayer, is that through their own lack of purity of heart, another person can bind himself to me through a demon. Just as in Christ I can call mercy and blessing down on a person, and indeed related to them “in Christ,” so to I can call down suffering and wickedness on another and relate to them “in Satan,” or in a demonic manner.

    Bottom line, though the news report seems to be referring to a superstition, there is a theologically orthodox understanding of the evil eye.

    Thanks for your blog and the new Orthodox section!

  • Hans

    I’m surprised the article didn’t mention that the Latvian Orthodox Church, sister of the Greek Orthodox, has a firm belief in the kavorka.

  • http://christinthemountains.blogspot.com/ Fr. Andrew S. Damick

    Someone ought to compile a sort of generic press release for journalists detailing the stuff that they tend to get wrong and telling them how to get it right.

  • Fr Theodore

    I saw this and followed it back to the Australian press. It looks like they got their information from a press release from the New South Wales Police. The next day the NSW police released this:

    “CLARIFICATION Regarding two men charged with 229 sexual offences during prayer sessions
    Friday, 12 Sep 2008 04:13pm

    In a media release issued this morning reference was made to two men arrested over sexual offences as being “highly regarded members of the Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities”.

Investigators would like to clarify there is no evidence linking either of the two men to the Coptic community or the Coptic Church.

A victim and witness in the investigation told police the 61-year-old accused man had claimed to be a high-ranking member of the Coptic community.

This claim is denied by Coptic community leaders and the Coptic Church in Sydney.

Clarification regarding references made to belief in the “evil eye”: This is not an accepted belief within the Greek Orthodox faith or Coptic Orthodox faith.”

    Some media, such as ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Company have updated their stories and now say the the Greek Orthodox Church has no knowledge of the men either. Others news outlets have not updated anything. It looks like a case of the media just printing what they are told without checking the facts.

  • Martha

    “It looks like a case of the media just printing what they are told without checking the facts.”

    Good job that never happens in America, eh? ;-)

  • Brian Walden

    I always thought the evil eye was a cultural rather than a strictly religious thing. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t, for example, both Greeks and Turks traditionally superstitious about the evil eye despite their traditional religions being quite different?

  • Jerry

    superficial reporting

    If you ever come out with a ranking system for stories following the tradition of TV content rating systems, superficial reporting will no doubt be one of the categories. Besides ‘S’ for superficial, we should probably also have ‘D’ for distorted, ‘E’ for totally wrong. But since not all stories gets it wrong, how about -E for without errors, -D for not distorted and -S for in-depth?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Ah, yes. Understandable, really. I, too, often confuse “highly regarded within” with “completely unknown to.”

    It sounds like the suspect was using a fake claim of authority as part of his con. In a former job, I dealt with con men regularly, and I found that local reporters often struggled to write about individuals who blatantly lied about who they were or about their credentials. I’m not sure if it was a desire to avoid taking sides, lack of time to investigate claims, or something else.

  • Xenia

    Bailey said both women come from religious families and were raised to follow the Orthodox faith, which includes a belief in the evil eye — a glance believed to harm those on whom it falls.

    LOL…A “belief”?

    I think they call that “belief” has a proper name, it’s called superstition and rightfully has no place in the Orthodox “faith”.

    Whoever these men were, if the allegations are true, then they were nothing more than opportunists who took advantage of women with superstitions.

    I do want to point out one thing about the story though, the victims claimed to have “paid” these men for prayer services, it leads one to believe that they had to have been clerics of some kind, no?

  • Martha

    “the victims claimed to have “paid” these men for prayer services, it leads one to believe that they had to have been clerics of some kind, no?”

    Not necessarily. I have no idea what the Greek cultural practice is, but it might be vaguely similar in broad general terms to Irish pishogues.

    People would go to the local wise woman or ‘fairy doctor’ for help with this kind of thing (my cows are drying up, my crops are failing, my child is sick and not thriving, I think someone has overlooked my land/animals/family, I need cures for warts/ringworm/other sicknesses). Oftentimes the individual consulted would have a special ‘prayer’ (a traditional charm) that they would say.

    You wouldn’t exactly ‘pay for prayer’ but you’d give some kind of offering or gift in exchange. Sounds like these guys were pulling the same kind of stunt.

  • FW Ken

    Xenia -

    It happens. A fellow was holed up in a Dallas motel recently, billing himself as a Catholic bishop and selling sacraments. He may have actually had some sort of ordination, but not necessarily. A few robes. a crucifix, and a good script liturgy, who needs ordination?

  • str1977

    Passing over the article calling the Coptic Church is “the native Christian church of Egypt”, as if all others were foreigners, I think it a bit strange that it says that

    “the Coptic Church … has a doctrine similar to the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches”.

    Since the article doesn’t specify any single doctrine, one must assume that they are talking about the whole of doctrine. Are Copts and Greek Orthodox really similar? Didn’t they split in 451 over … well … doctrine?

  • http://how-the-west-was-lost.blogspot.com/ The Cellarer

    I would have thought anyone with any sense would have filed this ‘evil eye’ story in the same file as ‘toll houses’ – i.e superstition

  • robert

    My wife and I are converts to the Orthodox faith. Our children have been raised Orthodox. In regard to the evil eye. My wife who is of Hispanic descent grew up hearing of the “evil eye” or “Ojo” (Spanish for eye). It is not part of any Christian faith, but is tied into it in regards to curing Ojo. To my understanding, if a person sees something they think is attractive, then they must touch it before something bad happens to it. Hence, older women who see a beautiful baby will touch its head because they don’t want the baby to get sick due to admiration (or coveting). There is more to it, but the point is that I’m sure every culture has it’s version of Ojo. Yours in Christ. Robert


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