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They asked her to lie inside the white lines on a bed of banana leaves, and lit candles around her.

The priestess prayed aloud, speaking in tongues for the spirit world.

She was among hundreds of white-clad believers who recently crowded into a Catholic church, praying before a statue of the Virgen de Las Mercedes, a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, who they said represents Obatala, a patriarch in the pantheon of Yoruba gods.

Some pay up to ,000 for the years-long initiation process to become babalaos, or Santeria priests.

Along with Santeria, Venezuela is home to other folk religions, such as the sect surrounding the Indian goddess Maria Lionza, which has also been flourishing.

Believers in Maria Lionza make quick dashes through highway traffic in Caracas to reach a statue of the goddess in a highway divider.

Black magic practitioners, known as paleros, are known to gather human bones from cemeteries in order to seal pacts with the dead, to call upon their spirits for vengeance.

At least some of the grave-robbing that plagues Caracas main cemetery is thought to be due to the paleros, who according to some Santeria followers offer up to ,000 for a skull.

The rituals have become an attractive option for Venezuelans seeking a unique spiritual path, including healing ceremonies aimed at curing everything from illness to heartache.Some even believe certain gods will offer protection from Venezuelas rampant violent crime.The surge in Santeria, which is practiced by many in Cuba, can partly be explained by the arrival of thousands of Cuban doctors in Venezuela.President Hugo Chavez has been providing Cuba with subsidized oil in exchange for thousands of physicians who come to the South American country to treat poor people.Santeria priests are also making annual predictions for Venezuelans and issuing warnings just like Cuban santeros do in Havana.

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