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EVANGELIST BENNY HINN PACKS ARENA

Thousands of believers flocked to HSBC Arena on Thursday evening, some hoping to experience miracles through the power of evangelist Benny Hinn, others content to be part of a moving worship experience.

Internationally known as a faith healer, Hinn drew about 15,000 people to the first of three services in his Buffalo "Miracle Crusade."

Some of them later claimed they had been healed of everything from lupus to witchcraft, from AIDS to diabetes. Additional services, with free admission, are scheduled at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. today in the arena.

"The greatest miracle is not a physical healing or a physical touch," Hinn told the crowd before hundreds of people responded to an altar call.

"The greatest miracle is spiritual -- when a life is transformed," he declared.

Later during the song-filled pep rally for Jesus, dozens of men, women and children paraded across the stage, proclaiming that they had been cured of a variety of painful, sometimes long-term ailments.

Some of them discarded wheelchairs, canes and crutches, testifying they were incapable of walking unaided when they arrived.

"Jesus is the same yesterday, today and always. He heals now just as he did 2,000 years ago," said Nicki Diodati of Niagara Falls, Ont., as she left the arena.

"Of course it's real. It is of God. I know it is 100 percent right," said David Reed of Marilla, who claimed he was cured of a back problem during the service.

Alice Cadger of St. Catharines, Ont., said she attended in hopes of having her ailing left leg healed. Cadger said she watches Hinn on television "several times a day."

Mike Groves said he drove from Bayside, Queens, with his wife, Loretta, three children and his mother-in-law to "worship the Lord."

Loretta Groves claimed she was healed of asthma during a Hinn crusade three years ago in Newark, N.J.

The Rev. Tommy Reid, pastor of Full Gospel Tabernacle, Orchard Park, was seated on the platform with Hinn during the service and spoke briefly of his 27-year friendship with Hinn, who once preached regularly at Reid's church.

"Outside of the Billy Graham crusade, he probably draws the largest crowd of any evangelist in America today," said Reid.

During the altar call, hundreds of people filed to the floor of the arena in front of the stage to "accept Jesus."

"Tonight these wonderful people are being delivered from the hands of Satan," declared Hinn.

Minutes later, after praying over them, he exhorted them to read the Bible every day, talk to God every day and go to church every Sunday.

Among those in the audience Thursday night was Kathy Rogers, an East Aurora nurse, who claims she was cured of incurable Lou Gehrig's disease five years ago to the day during a Hinn crusade in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena.

At the time, she said, she was severely incapacitated, living on pain pills, and barely able to walk, hold up her head or swallow food. Her doctors had told her husband she had only two years to live.

"I believe (Hinn) is a man of God," Rogers said. "He provides the ability for people to ask God to heal them."

Sure, said Joe Nickell, author of "Looking for a Miracle," a book that pours cold water on claims of faith healing.

His take on claims of miracle cures is that they are based on negative evidence that something has happened that is medically inexplicable, so the erroneous conclusion is that "it must be supernatural." Furthermore, he contends, many of those cures prove to be temporary.

Nickell is a senior research fellow with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

His study of faith healing has determined, Nickell said, that people are made to feel they are healed because of several factors, including the charisma and positivity of the evangelist, the intensity of the event, the strong desire for a cure, the adrenaline flow produced by the excitement and the power of suggestion.

Nickell said some people may be receiving a course of treatment for an illness and the intensity of the event may be sufficient to complete that process.

"It might be spontaneous remission. That happens all the time -- not just at faith-healing services," he said.

Reid disagreed.

"Jesus is controversial, too," he said. "I suppose that any time you deal with the supernatural, you are controversial."

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