Opinion polls about prayer and health should leave no one surprised at the growing popularity of local faith healer Dr. Issam Nemeh. Praying is by far the most popular form of alternative medicine in America.
While academics debate the influence of prayer on health, Nemeh’s healing ceremonies throughout Greater Cleveland revive questions about whether miracle cures are possible or provable.
Despite testimonials of people who say they were cured of multiple sclerosis and other ailments by Nemeh and his healing team, several experts said not one case of miracle healing has ever been clinically proven.
Believers counter that science is not capable of measuring God’s work.
“People in the hospital, 80 percent of them pray to get better,” said Joan Fox, a researcher at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “So why when we have a Dr. Nemeh who prays over us, are we amazed?”
Fox doesn’t necessarily buy into miracle healing. But she believes the power of a person’s thoughts and expectations can directly affect health. She is studying hands-on energy healing in prostate cancer patients, with a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Christian faith healing in America began with 19th-century evangelists, and experienced a rebirth with Oral Roberts’ radio broadcasts in the 1950s, according to a January report in CQ Researcher, a publication of Congressional Quarterly.
“Since then,” wrote author Sarah Glazer, “healers and TV evangelists like Pat Robertson have found a durable following for their reputed ability to call on God to raise crippled congregates from their wheelchairs or let blind men see.”
The only solid evidence that prayer benefits health, Glazer wrote, is studies that show regular churchgoers live longer. Even that finding may be tainted by the possibility that healthier people are more likely to make it to church.
“Prayer and healing studies are unreliable,” said Nancy Berlinger of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute. “The only ones that seem to hold up are ones that demonstrate a correlation between longevity and churchgoing.”
Yet psychiatry professor Dr. Harold Koenig of the Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, says religious faith has a powerful effect on the body’s healing process.
“There is no scientific evidence that faith healing actually occurs, but there is scientific reason it might be true, based on the mind-body relationship,” Koenig said.
He added that science simply cannot prove whether God answers people’s prayers.
James Randi, author of the 1989 book “The Faith Healers,” said he investigated 104 claims of miracle cures and found none of them were true.
“They belonged to three classes,” he said in an interview from the James Randi Educational Foundation in Florida. “First, people who never had the disease in the first place. The second class are people who still had the disease but refused to acknowledge they had it. The third group are those who were already dead by the time we investigated them.”
Hector Avalos, an assistant professor of religious studies at Iowa State University, is a former Pentecostal faith healer. He now dismisses the possibility that hands-on healing can cure illness.
“How many people have been followed up on from these services?” Avalos said in an interview. “People will say they are healed for a variety of social and psychological reasons. When people say they are healed, they mean they think they’re healed.”
Nemeh, a 50-year-old doctor from Bay Village, has drawn thousands of followers to healing services at Catholic churches. He is a licensed medical doctor who gave up anesthesiology to practice acupuncture. The home page of his Web site, www.drnemeh.com, features a schedule of healing services, a link to testimonials and promotion of an inspirational CD recorded by his 17-year-old daughter, Ashley.
Nemeh’s wife, Cathy, who ministers with him, said his private practice in Rocky River does not profit from the popularity of the healing ceremonies. The practice charges $250 for an acupuncture session, which includes a prayer, she said.
She said recent TV coverage has generated “hundreds and hundreds” of phone calls.
“We have people come just for prayer. He doesn’t charge them,” she said. “It’s not about the money, it’s about God.”
Asked if her husband would agree to an interview, Cathy Nemeh responded, “Do you believe in miracles?”
She then said Nemeh doesn’t like to do interviews. “He doesn’t want to focus on himself. He’s a humble man.”
Cathy Nemeh said God is working through a medical doctor to heal the sick.
Thomas Dilling, executive director of the Ohio State Medical Board, said he sees a potential problem if Nemeh holds himself up as a medical doctor and a spiritual healer.
“One of the issues here seems to be how he is viewed by the public that comes to the prayers,” Dilling said. “Are they looking at him in a different light because he’s a physician? Does that alter their relationship with their current treating physicians or with him?”
Stephen Post, a bioethicist and professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, agrees. But it shouldn’t be a problem if Nemeh makes it clear that his healing services are complementary, and not an alternative to conventional medicine, Post said.