A Declaration for European Indigenous Religious Traditions

Cara Schulz —  July 17, 2014 — 35 Comments

For only the second time in its 16 year history, the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER) issued a Declaration. ECER is an international body composed of delegates from 12 different countries which assist European ethnic religious groups in opposing discrimination. The organization focuses on ethnic or indigenous religions, not modern occult or syncretic neo-religions. ECER was founded in 1998 and drew up its first declaration, with a second addition, in the same year.

ECER decided to write a new declaration after the death of krivis (supreme priest) Jonas Trinkūnas of Lithuania, who was ECER’s founder and first president. The group wanted to restate its mission and renew its commitment during a time of transition. It also wanted to address some of the problems that ethnic Pagan groups in Europe still face.

The Wild Hunt spoke with Andras Corban-Arthen, current President of ECER and delegate from Spain, about the declaration. We placed the full declaration below in bold; intersected with it are excerpts of our interview with Mr. Corban-Arthen which clarify or address the section preceding it.

Andras Corban-Arthen addresses the ECER meeting held in Lithuania [photo credit Corban-Arthen]

Andras Corban-Arthen addresses the ECER meeting held in Lithuania [Photo Credit :Mapiva Yapakn ]

A DECLARATION FROM THE EUROPEAN CONGRESS OF ETHNIC RELIGIONS (English Version)

We, the delegates from twelve different countries convened at the European Congress of Ethnic Religions in Vilnius, Lithuania, on this 9th day of July 2014, join our voices together to make the following declaration:

We are members of diverse European indigenous ethnic cultures who seek to revitalize and reclaim our ancestral religious and spiritual traditions. We honor those who went before us, who gave us our life and our heritage. We are bound to the lands of our ancestors, to the soil that holds their bones, to the waters from which they drank, to the roads that they once walked. And we seek to pass that heritage to those who come after us, whose ancestors we are in the process of becoming – our children, our grandchildren, and the many generations yet to be born. We send solidarity and support to those other indigenous nations, races and religions who are also engaged in the struggle to preserve their own ancestral heritages.

Our ethnic religions are the product of the history of this continent; they are the living expressions, in the present, of our most ancient traditions and identities. At a time when the world is precariously balanced on the edge of environmental and economic upheaval, largely as the result of imbalanced individualism and rampant greed, our religions promote very different models of spiritual and social values: living in harmony, balance and moderation with the Earth; the importance of family and cooperative community; and respect and honor for all forms of life.

Yet, in many countries of Europe, the practice of our religions is impeded, restricted, and sometimes forbidden.

Cara Schulz: In the declaration you note that, in some European countries, the practice of indigenous religions is impeded. Are there particular countries where this is so? And what challenges, specifically, are faced?

Andras Corban-Arthen, President of ECER: The situation in Europe is complicated. On the one hand, in some countries — such as Greece, Russia, Lithuania — opposition against paganism is spearheaded by mainstream religious entities, particularly the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The impediments can range from the purely bureaucratic — religious authorities privately pressuring government officials to deny legal status to a pagan religion; to the publicly hostile — vitriolic condemnations of, and false accusations against, pagan religions by prominent Christian clergy, often right from the pulpit, which can profoundly sway public opinion; to outright physical violence against pagan individuals as well as sacred sites by religiously-fueled groups of thugs who, in some cases, appear to have been (unofficially) incited by the churches, as has happened in Italy, Poland and Ukraine.

On the other hand, in countries such as Germany and especially France, which have become largely secular, there has developed a widespread cynicism and mistrust toward religion of any sort, including paganism. The impediments found in such countries have more to do with apathy and dismissiveness than with outright hostility, but they are impediments just the same.

We urge all European governments to fully comply with, and actively enforce, the provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion to all citizens as stipulated in the Treaties of the European Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the European Convention of Human Rights, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other similar conventions and agreements, and to refrain from granting preferential treatment to some religions over others. We also ask that this equality of religious preference be reflected in the European educational systems.

CS: Do you think the EU will take practical action to help those who practice indigenous religions?

Corban-Arthen: That is certainly one of the outcomes we would love to see. For a nation to join the European Union, its constitution must first meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which ensure the freedom of religious choice and practice. In theory, a country which fails to comply with the protection of such a fundamental human right can be sued in the European Court of Justice. In practice, that’s far easier said than done. The EU is much more of an economic than a political union, and the enforcement of human rights has been very selective. A pagan group would need to have incontrovertible evidence, a large enough organization and membership, really good legal resources, and substantial funding for such a lawsuit to be successful. Needless to say, there don’t appear to be any pagan groups in Europe — certainly no ethnic ones — that meet those criteria. Part of our plan for the ECER is to start compiling some of the necessary resources so that eventually we might get to the point where some agency of the EU will respond favorably toward us.

We urge all our governments to actively engage in the preservation and protection of European indigenous sacred sites – be they human-made structures or natural settings. We further ask that free and open access to those sites be given to ethnic European religions which seek to use them for the purposes of worship and spiritual celebration.

CS: You’re asking for access to religious sites – are there specific sites you have in mind that you can’t access for religious purposes?

Corban-Arthen: There are lots of sites in many countries which, while open to the public for educational or touristic purposes, are off-limits for religious observances — any who attempt to engage in ceremony are customarily forced to leave by the police, and in some cases have even been arrested. Then there are those sites which remain completely unavailable, mostly because they are controlled by the churches. An example that comes to mind right away: the largest known altar dedicated to Perkūnas — the Baltic god of thunder — in Lithuania, lies in the basement of the Roman Catholic cathedral in Vilnius, and the church refuses to grant access to it (even just to see it) to anyone, often to the point of denying that it actually exists. Romuva has been lobbying for years to gain access to it, without success. A couple of years ago, a large number of young Romuva members organized a flash mob to temporarily block access to the cathedral, in the hope of galvanizing enough public sentiment that the church would be forced to grant access to the shrine; unfortunately, that didn’t work, either, though it did start some public debate about the issue.

We do not seek ownership or exclusive rights to those sites – the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land.

We object to the use of the term “pagan” by extremist political groups of any kind, as it reflects negatively on our reputation.

CS: You object to the term Pagan – why is that?

Corban-Arthen: We don’t object to the term “pagan” — in fact, both the ECER as an organization, as well as many of the ethnic member groups, have been using it for a very long time. Our objection is to the misappropriation and misuse of that term by extremist right-wing groups throughout Europe (neo-fascists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, skinheads, etc.) When such people openly label themselves as “pagans,” the churches, the politicians, and the media have a field day tarring religious pagans with the very same dirty brush. We felt that it was important to include some allusion to this in the declaration, if nothing else to create some distance between us and the extremist factions. I understand that the language we chose has been somewhat unclear, since I have now fielded this same question several times. Unfortunately, when you have a group of people who speak a variety of different languages, and you are trying to come up with wording that is understood by and acceptable to everyone involved, sometimes the result will be less than ideal. I hope this clarifies our intent.

Finally, we urge all peoples and all nations to place the well-being of the Earth – who is, literally, our Living Mother – above any and all other priorities.

We send this message in kinship, love, and respect.

Andras Corban Arthen (President), Anamanta, Spain/U.S.A.

Ramanė Roma Barauskienė, Lietuva
Martin Brustad, Norway
Nina Bukala, Werkgroep Hagal, Netherlands
Alexander Demoor, Werkgroep Hagal, Belgium
Valentinas Dilginas, Kuzšei Žemaicĭai, Lithuania
Sören Fisker, Forn Siđr, Danmark
Federico Fregni (Board Member), Societas Hesperiana, Italia
Marianna Gorronova, Czech Republic
Lars Irenessøn (Board Member), Forn Siđr, Danmark
Irena Jankutė-Balkūnė (Board Member), Romuva, Lithuania
Runar Kartsen, Forn Sed, Norway
Daniele Liotta (Board Member), Movimento Tradizionale Romano, Italia
Silvano Lorenzoni, Federazione Pagana Italiana, Italia
Anna Lucarelli, Movimento Tradizionale Romano, Italia
Sachin Nandha, United Kingdom
Zdenek Ordelt, Czech Republic
Elisabeth Overgaauw, Werkgroep Hagal, Netherlands
Eugenijus Paliokas, Šventaragis Romuva, Lithuania
Staško Potrzebowski, Rodzima Wiara, Polska
Prudence Priest, Romuva, U.S.A.
Marina Psaraki, Y.S.E.E., Greece
Vlassis G. Rassias, Y.S.E.E., Greece
Valdas Rutkūnas, Romuva, Lithuania
Ignas Šatkauskas (Board Member), Romuva, Lithuania
Øyvind Siljeholm, Forn Sed, Norway
Dovile Sirusaitė, Lithuania
Eleonora Stella, Societas Hesperiana, Italia
Inija Trinkūnienė, Romuva, Lithuania
Ram Vaidya, United Kingdom

In our interview, Mr. Corban-Arthen discussed ECER’s focus on ethnic religion. That focus can make Americans uneasy as media reports often conflate anything that focuses on specifically European ethnicity with racism or antisemitism. Corban-Arthen says that’s unfortunate, because “while there are certainly some people who fit that pattern, there are far many more who don’t.”

Ritual at ECER, [photo credit Vytautas Daraskevicius]

Ritual at ECER, [photo credit Vytautas Daraskevicius]

He also says that many people are unaware of just how much of indigenous Paganism survives in modern Europe. “…particularly in remote rural areas, which are not only outside the typical tourist routes, but also quite outside of the modern mainstream culture of the countries in which they exist. Some of them have been, to varying degrees, syncretized with Christianity, though it is often not difficult to separate the two. Some have survived as folklore. Some, much harder to find, appear to be unbroken survivals largely untainted by Christianity.”

Identifying and preserving those remnants of ethnic religions is important not only to those reviving the religions, but also to those wishing to incorporate indigenous practices in various forms of neo-Paganism. Corban-Arthen says that we need to realize the changes brought about by modernity which threaten to destroy what remains of European indigenous traditions. He says, “The Lithuanians and the Basques, for instance, are struggling to preserve their cultural identities, including what survives of their ethnic religions and their sacred places, just as the Lakota and the Wurundjeri are struggling to do the same.” Corban-Arthen sees hope, though.

He says indigenous peoples from around the world have started to invite representatives of European ethnic traditions to their gatherings and conferences. Large interfaith organizations such as the Parliament of the World’s Religions are now including European ethnic traditions in their indigenous assemblies. The same goes for intergovernmental, social justice and human rights organizations such as the United Nations.

“We may see, in coming years, an increased awareness of the survival of European indigenous religions, of the difficulties they face, and of the circumstances that led to their near-extinction. The European Congress of Ethnic Religions is committed to help that happen,” notes Corban-Arthen.

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Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • John M. E. Machate

    Since I expect it to be the next buzzword for reconstructionists (of which I am one) what do they mean by indigenous I wonder?

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      It’s a good question.

      I would suggest the practice of a religion in the land of its “origin”.

      Of course, what with the evolution of religions being a complex thing, that in itself is a problematic definition.

      I also wonder if they consider reconstructed religions as on par with themselves, or if they see them as neo-religions.

      • John M. E. Machate

        I agree based on the statement “We are bound to the lands of our ancestors, to the soil that holds their bones, to the waters from which they drank, to the roads that they once walked.”

        This is important since Americans in particular like to co-opt terms and I can see some folks in the recon communities trying to claim ‘indigenous’ the way some claim ‘traditional’.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          My particular practice of Heathenry is rooted in a “Landisc” philosophy, so a connection to place is pretty important, to me.

        • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

          I’ve often said that various modern Pagan and Western polytheistic traditions are inspired by or reconstructing the indigenous faiths of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa to try and distance our newer religious movements from these traditions such as what are described above. It seems to be precise-enough, but I’ve never had the opportunity to actually speak to anyone from an indigenous religion of the sort that we’re discussing so it’s very likely that it could be made even more so.

    • Oberon Osiris

      I’m half-Lithuanian on my mother’s side. I’ve always been interested in the actual religions of European Pagans. In the past I’ve heard that Lithuania was never totally converted to Christianity so I am not surprised that Romuva and other Pagan religions are emerging after so long asleep.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      From context I would say they mean by Indigenous a religion practiced by the people on the land of its origin, either unbroken since before Christianity or with breaks but with other credible forms of continuity. It’s an interesting question whether ECER would include everyone who calls themselves Reconstructionist.

      • John M. E. Machate

        Forn Sed and Romuva are both listed. Prudence Priest, Romuva, U.S.A. is even a signatory.

        Romuva calls itself a recon faith.

        • Finnchuill

          Surely these signatories are all reconstructionist.
          I also wondered about the neologism ‘neo-religion’.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I would imagine that “neo-religion” would include things such as modern Druidry and Wicca – both technically indigenous to the British Isles.

          • TadhgMor

            Indigenous certainly seems like the wrong word to refer to historical practices, since as you point out it doesn’t explicit refer to time frame.

            Plus you can add me to others who would avoid the term. I don’t want to steal any spotlight from indigenous communities across the world that really need it.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I do tend to use “native”, instead.

            Too many words are emotionally charged, which becomes an obstacle to communication.

        • AndrasArthen

          Just to clarify, for many people the term “reconstructionism” has a somewhat different meaning here in Europe than what it tends to mean in the U.S. Romuva, for example, is reconstructionist in the sense that they have brought a lot of substantial surviving elements of their ethnic religion together in a way that may be somewhat different from how they existed together before. But it’s important to understand that, for them, these are actual surviving practices, that are still kept alive (to one degree or another) by people in rural areas. Jonas Trinkūnas & Inija Trinkūnienė met, for instance, while both were researching surviving pagan practices among peasant communities in the late sixties. In one of my visits to Lithuania, Jonas took me to see one such farmer and, given what the man told me through a translator, it would seem that those indigenous practices do continue to live among some people. In recent years, Jonas started referring to Romuva as a “revitalization” (rather than a “reconstruction”) of ethnic Lithuanian religion, in an effort underscore the unbroken quality of their religion.

          • John M. E. Machate

            Thank you Andras,

            That is an interesting distinction, though it is one that most reconstructionist religions could claim in varying degrees. After all even the Irish still have some practices that are clearly Pagan in origin.

    • John M. E. Machate

      From there website –

      By Ethnic Religion, we mean religion, spirituality,
      and cosmology that is firmly grounded in a particular people’s
      traditions. In our view, this does not include modern occult or
      ariosophic theories/ideologies, nor syncretic neo-religions.

      Nothing on the term ‘ indigenous” though. SO what the hell is a syncretic neo-religion.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I assume “syncretic neo-religion” covers Neopaganism by intent.

    • John M. E. Machate

      I asked Andras directly and this was his response:

      Hello John,

      Aplogies for not responding sooner — I’m in Spain, pretty much hopping from place to place, so Internet access is very spotty & time is very limited. I don’t know that the ECER has an “official” definition of “indigenous,” but the sense that most of us seem to share is that these are culturally-specific and -integrated religions, that are directly & intricately bound to the specific lands in which they developed. There is also the sense that these are traditions which have, to one degree or another, survived a major colonizing event, with Christianization being most definitely seen as a process of religious (as well as political, economic, etc.) colonization. Hope that makes it a little clearer.

      Deep Peace,

      Andras

    • Segomâros Widugeni

      Given the use and definition of the term “indigenous” by modern Indigenous Peoples, and the definitions of the term now being used in international law, I should hope the term is not used by Reconstructionists. I would *never* use the term myself. It would open a whole can of worms I don’t want to open.

      • Deborah Bender

        As you might expect, indigenous peoples are not all of one mind on this (neither different peoples nor different individuals within one people). In the last fifteen years or so, two Parliaments of the World’s Religions, the United Religions Initiative, and various interfaith initiatives arising from indigenous people practicing indigenous religions have afforded practitioners and elders of indigenous religions unprecedented opportunities for personal contact between their own communities and also with interfaith activists from a variety of pagan religions of European origin. They are getting first hand experience of commonalities and differences in practices and viewpoints.

        These communities are figuring out for themselves where they wish to draw the lines, both within their own indigenous communities (which include people who have varying degrees of involvement with both indigenous and non-indigenous religions) and in dealing with outside groups. To the extent that they come to consensus, we certainly should respect their wishes, but I think it’s early days yet.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I presume they are using “pagan” in the “little P” sense of “non-Abrahamic”, rather than “Big P” sense that many (syncretic) neo-religionists use it.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Depends on who the “they” are you reference. If it’s ECER folks calling themselves “pagan” it looks, again from context, like the “little p” sense. If it’s the extreme right calling themselves “pagan” I would say the latter use it in the sense of “anything that affronts the common listener.”

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        I was talking about the ECER. The racists, etc… can go jump.

  • Georges Val

    Excellent ! congratulation !

  • Deborah Bender

    This declaration strikes me as a constructive step. I am in agreement with everything it asks for.

    I particularly appreciate the statement about politics. I have been wary of giving direct support to ethnic and indigenous cultural and religious groups based in Europe because of the difficulty, at a great distance, of identifying the ones that tolerate racism or other forms of bigotry. Based on this declaration and interview, if the ECER is backing a group or issue, I won’t worry about that.

    I’d like to note that both American signatories have in the past been involved in the broader American pagan community. I believe Prudence Priest still maintains those connections and is in addition a practicing Heathen. I foresee more cooperation and bridge-building coming out of this initiative from ECER.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      So long as we don’t see assimilation (and appropriation), it should be fine.

      After all, these are people and religions struggling for recognition.

  • Raksha38

    This declaration is really great and I think an important step in what will hopefully be a trend in higher visibility of these traditions.

  • Segomâros Widugeni

    I have had an interest for decades in the modern, post-Soviet revivals of pre-Christian religions. There’s a lot of overlap with the modern Reconstructionist faiths, but the equation is not perfect. Mostly, the modern ethnic religions are attempting to revive the pre-Christian religions of particular modern peoples, rooting these revivals in their history, folklore, and identity. Generally, nationalism, not always extreme nationalism, plays a part in motivating and informing these religions. Many of them were part of the resistance to Soviet domination in their home countries, and the struggle of their nationalities for cultural survival.

    Modern ethnic religions have spread all over Eastern Europe, and there are some found in the Caucasus, as well as in other regions of the world. Many of them are polytheistic, but not all are. They tend to be less eclectic than most modern Pagans in the West, more focused on one particular identity, hence their objection to “syncretic neo-religion”, and less focused on occultism. Their internal cultures tend to more conservative than modern Pagans in the West, particularly sexually, which also contributes to friction.

    Some Reconstructionist faiths are trying to do something like the ethnic faiths, others, like my own Gaulish Polytheism, are trying to revive the religions and cultures of extinct peoples, which is really a somewhat different project. Some Reconstructionist umbrella communities, such as Celtic Reconstructionism or the Middle Eastern Reconstructionisms, or Hellenism, include people doing both.
    I think there’s plenty of room for cooperation among modern Pagans, both of the Western variety and the European ethnic flavor. As with Pagans and Polytheists, each needs to understand where the other is coming from, how their particular concerns are rooted in their histories and past struggles.

  • http://quakerpagan.org Cat C-B

    I appreciated both the denunciation of the appropriation of the use of the term “pagan” by right wing extremists and Cara’s careful interview to make that and other points clearer to those who might not have been following this movement.

    I know there are other stories that will receive more comments. I suspect there won’t be many as important as this one, however. Nice work.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      At the risk of being both controversial and derailing the topic…

      Have the right wing extremists appropriated the term “pagan” (or any similar term), or is it just a simple fact that there is a ring wing element to the various “pagan” religions out there?

      That is something I accept about Heathenry. There are politically extreme Heathens out there. Their politics have nothing to do with Heathenry, but neither do mine.

      All I do is make sure that other people understand this. Every religion has its extreme fringe, after all.

      • Deborah Bender

        The issue comes up when a group explicitly links its politics with its religion in a way that denigrates or blames people of another ethnicity or another religion. Tying together race/ethnicity, culture, politics and religion in one package and othering anyone who doesn’t embrace the whole package is a perennial strain in European and American culture. It usually leads to awful results. Wars of religion, ethnic cleansing, burning at the stake of Jewish converts by the Spanish Inquisition, the Ku Klux Klan, etc., etc.

        Modern (post-Enlightenment) civil society depends on allowing people to make separations between their ancestry, their religion and their politics, instead of inheriting these things in a solid lump and being stuck with it. Going to the other extreme, which is denying people the right to tie these things together for themselves if they see a connection, isn’t good either, but it tends to kill fewer people.

      • http://quakerpagan.org Cat C-B

        I think Leoht is referencing my previous conversation with him regarding cultural appropriation. And, yeah, because of the way extremists tend to make use of their cultural borrowings to further an agenda of oppressing already marginalized peoples, I tend to think of it as a form of cultural appropriation… though strictly speaking, it may not be.

        I think it’s a good thing to contest the use, in any case. This varied group of celebrants of some of the very few continuously practiced non-Christian European religions have chosen to distance themselves explicitly from extremists. I think that benefits all of us.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I just worry that it is denial – “They aren’t true Scotsmen” when it should, perhaps, be an admission that there is an extremist fringe to be dealt with.

          Westboro are a problem within Christianity, certain terrorist organisations are a problem for Islam and the neo-Nazis are a problem for Heathenry.

          Othering them helps no-one. The first stage in dealing with a problem is admitting there is one.

          • http://quakerpagan.org Cat C-B

            I see your point there. Certainly that is my perspective, too, when I look at the presence of perpetrators of abuse within our community, so I see that there are times when acknowledging the problem as ours to grapple with is a good plan.

            However, I think indigenous European religious groups may have some unique leverage in this situation–as well as some unique vulnerabilities in some of the European countries that have a history of not fully complying with the E.U. requirement that nations respect all religions. And I think making it clear that there is nothing intrinsic in pagan religions that affirms racism and extremism is a very good idea, given that context.

          • Deborah Bender

            When you put it that way, I agree. I also agree with Cat’s response to you.

          • AndrasArthen

            It looks like people are still adding responses to this post, so I’ll chime in while I have some time. There’s an important distinction between the extremist fringe among the practitioners of a particular religion, and people who are political extremists who choose to co-opt the terminology or symbolic representations of a religion, and use them — outside the context of that religion — for their own political ends. We (the ECER) are addressing our condemnation to the latter category of groups, which is growing very rapidly and very publicly all over this continent, particularly in Eastern Europe. For those groups, the term “pagan” means, primarily, a fierce hatred & rejection of Christianity, which has at times resulted in physical violence (desecration of churches, attacks on Christian worshipers & clergy); and, secondarily, it carries vague but strong connotaions of nationalism, separatism, xenophobia & even anarchy. Here in Spain, I have been asking people in a variety of settings what the word “pagan” means to them, and a lot of them immediately have referenced the extremist context.

            One of the main reasons we issued a public declaration and have asked that it be shared as widely as possible, is that we are trying to establish, in the public awareness of European societies, as clear a distinction as it is possible to do in a few words between those of us who use “pagan” in a religious/cultural context, and those who use it merely as a code word for political extremism. The fact that the declaration is being shared throughout Europe through social media, and that we have already received many encouraging private responses to it, indicates to me that this was an effective thing to do, and we are now planning other similar steps.