A vatican university is to offer the first official qualification in Satanism for Roman Catholic priests in an effort to counter what it calls "a worrying increase in interest in the occult."
The school of theology at Regina Apostolorum, one of Rome's most prestigious pontifical universities, has devised a two-month course including how to carry out an exorcism, in response to warnings that half a million Italians have had contact with satanic sects.
The first series of four-hour lectures, to start next month, will cover the anthropological, theological and liturgical aspects of Satanism, and will include instruction by an exorcist within the Roman Catholic Church.
Carlo Climati, a teacher on the course, said: "In the past few years there has been a lot of interest in Satanism, and it develops because of the media. It's not that the devil is in the media, rock and roll or the internet, but that it can be damaging when used the wrong way.
"For young people, interest in Satanism can start with a CD, then move on to the internet. From there, it sometimes develops into seemingly harmless things like going to cemeteries, but sometimes can lead to murders."
At least 100 priests and advanced students of theology have expressed interest in the diploma course, which will cost ¬188 (£129).
A spokesman for the university said: "We are looking for highly motivated individuals. Priests need the tools to fight against disinformation and ignorance surrounding Satanism."
A recent resurgence of interest in Satanism has been fuelled by films such as Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). A respected research institute, Eurispes, has catalogued 650 satanic organisations in Italy, many around Milan and Rome.
Church officials estimate that half a million Italians have had contact with satanic sects. Tonino Cantelmi, head of the Association of Catholic Psychiatrists and Psychologists, who will also teach on the course, said: "These sects are growing very quickly. Young people especially are exposed to the phenomenon and attracted by it."
Italians were shocked by a recent murder case in which two teenage heavy-metal musicians were allegedly killed in a human sacrifice by fellow band members.
In 1999, under the guidance of its chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican updated the ritual for exorcism for the first time since 1614. Guidelines tell priests authorised to carry out exorcism to "diligently examine the facts", before sprinkling holy water on someone claiming to be possessed by Satan.
Students on the Vatican course will be taught to be vigilant for signs of Satan's presence, including speaking in unknown languages and showing disproportionate physical strength.
Exorcists will be warned that the Devil tries to deceive his adversaries by persuading his victims that their problems can be cured by an ordinary doctor. Satanists are dismayed at the prospect of a Vatican campaign against them and maintain that Satan embodies human characteristics which the Church is mistaken to try to repress, including pride, individuality, indulgence, ambition, carnal desire and self-interest.
Gavin Baddeley, a leading member of the Church of Satan in Britain, which has 4,000 members, and a contributing editor to its official magazine, Satannia, said exorcisms by the Catholic Church sometimes caused serious injury.
"The Vatican has been masters of media manipulation for millennia, suppressing art which it cannot control, perverting into propaganda that which has the misfortune to fall beneath its shadow," he said. "Many teen-agers are drawn towards Satanism because they despise religion... for the rational reasons that it is mindlessly authoritarian, deeply sexually dysfunctional, and has the blood of countless millions on its bejewelled fingers."
For the Vatican, Mr Climati said more must be done to heighten public awareness of the dangers of Satanism. "It aims to overthrow and destroy those values which are written into every human heart, regardless of religion or culture," he said. "Satanists are trying to confuse young people in order to create a reverse society in which there are no morals, in which good becomes evil, and evil is good.