Archives For Africa

Last week notorious “witch-hunter” Helen Ukpabio, known as Lady Apostle, arrived in London to hold a 3 day revival meeting called a ”Season for Disconnections From All Spiritual Attack.” Ukpabio’s message is made very clear in a widely circulated poster that asks “Are you under Witchcraft attack? Mermaid Attack? Ancestral Spirit Attack?” It adds: “Come and be disconnected” a service that is “free of charge.”

Helen-Ukpabio-in-London2

Ukpabio is the founder of Nigeria’s Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries which claims to have more than 150 churches in that country alone. Allegedly Ukpabio is looking to open one in the UK to serve its large African-born population. More specifically she is targeting its large Nigerian-born population which has grown over 110% since 2001.

Unfortunately for Ukpabio, the UK did not welcome her with open arms. When the event was announced, there was immediate backlash. The planned venue, Albany World Music Theater, canceled her booking due to its content. In a statement, the Albany said:

We only cancel bookings in very exceptional circumstances. In this instance we were not given full information about the nature of the booking by the booker, which is at odds with our terms and conditions and ethical policies as an organisation. As soon as we became aware of the full details of the booking, it was canceled and the booker was issued with a full refund.

The Witchcraft Human Rights and Information Network (WHRIN), The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales and the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) all reportedly contacted Home Secretary Theresa May and requested that Ukpabio be deported and permanently banned from the UK. Why? Gary Foxcroft, Executive Director of WHRIN explains:

We believe that her presence in the UK is pursuant to section 3(5) of the Immigration Act 1971 on the basis that her presence here is not conducive to the public good and request that she is immediately deported and has her UK visa revoked. There have been numerous cases of children in the UK being tortured and sometimes killed due to the beliefs that Helen Ukpabio espouses … We cannot afford to wait for another such case before the Government takes action to put a stop to such preachers.

For many Ukpabio is the one performing the “spiritual attacks” rather than saving anyone from them. In March, WHRIN released its “2013 Global Report” to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council on faith-based, witchcraft-related violence. During that year Ukpabio’s home country of Nigeria along with South Africa had the highest number of reported acts on the African continent. Unfortunately the statistics are flawed because there is “considerable under reporting, particularly when children are accused.” WHRIN explains:

These figures are inconsistent with the experience of organisations providing support to child victims in these settings. It may be that such accusations have become so common they cease to attract attention. It is also possible that previous unwelcome international media coverage discourages local or national reporting.

This past week’s events in London certainly did stir the international media. Despite all that attention and outrage, Ukpabio successfully held her meeting in an small, undisclosed venue. A group from IHEU discovered that location and managed to stage a small protest. In an interview with Channel 4 London, IHEU’s Bob Churchill called Ukpabio’s work a crime because it “incites people to abuse.” The TV station sponsored a short but comprehensive report on the subject:

Ukpabio has since left the UK. However many are hoping that the government will permanently ban her from the country. Foxcroft says:

The issue of children being abused due witchcraft accusations in the UK has been recognised by the Government who established a National Working group to tackle the problem. However, as yet, there have been no successful convictions of pastors whose preachings are known to lead to child abuse and there is no law in place to stop such harmful practices.

London’s Metro Police operates a special task force called Project Violet to interface with local communities and organizations specifically working to prevent abuse. Additionally the national government has created an “action plan to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief.” It states:

This action plan is intended to help raise awareness of the issue of child abuse linked to faith or belief and to encourage practical steps to be taken to prevent such abuse … The beliefs which are the focus of this action plan are not confined to one faith, nationality or ethnic community. Examples have been recorded worldwide among Europeans, Africans, Asians and elsewhere as well as in Christian, Muslim, Hindu and pagan faiths among others. Not all those who believe in witchcraft or spirit possession harm children.

Within the UK there are also a number of charitable organizations, like Afruca, who work to raise awareness within African immigrant communities as well as in Nigeria itself. Afruca has offices in both London and Lagos, where it operates the Foundation for the Protection of the Rights of the Vulnerable Children. When Ukpabio left the country, Afruca tweeted:

It is the right direction for the UK and does send a message to the  international community. However the problem in Nigeria persists. Within the borders of her home country, Ukpabio is not only a respected minister but also a celebrity, a musician and a filmmaker. Her film production company, Liberty Films, is a household-name and a force in Nigeria’s film community Nollywood. Like her books and broadcast sermons, Ukpabio’s films are a delivery method for the anti-witchcraft message.

In a 2010 New York Times interview she defended her films saying, “It is only because I am African that people who understand that J. K. Rowling writes fiction would take literally Ms. Ukpabio’s filmic depictions of possessed children, gathering by moonlight to devour human flesh.” In another 2012 interview with Nigerian Yes! International Magazine, Ukpabio blames atheists for the continued backlash saying, “I marvel at the way people can easily use their demonic wisdom to kill, murder and slander another person.” When asked why she has so many enemies she says:

 I think [they fight me] because I preach the truth. Because I don’t compromise … So, people want to see me fall, people want to see me compromise … and I’ve refused.

Yes! International Magazine and other similar Nigerian pop media give Ukpabio a positive public voice in a country where she has millions of followers. However they do not speak for the entire country. The recent buzz on social media, blogs and in the Nigerian general media demonstrates that Ukpabio faces strong opposition among her own people. Here is a tweet from a mother and business woman residing in Lagos,

In addition there is a growing Nigerian child rights movement supported in part by international organizations such as UNICEF and Stepping Stones Nigeria. Ukpabio’s followers were caught on tape disrupting a meeting held by one these organizations.

As the fight for Africa’s children continues, the global community appears to be closely monitoring Ukpabio and other Pentecostal ministers like her. In 2008 Mags Gavan and Joost van der Valk released the documentary Saving Africa’s Witch Children which focuses on the dangers in Ukpabio’s ministry. The film was broadcast internationally over several years. In the U.S. it appeared on HBO in 2010 while Ukpabio happen to be in the States. When she tried to return in 2012 the U.S. refused to grant her a VISA.

UNICEF Nigeria has posted a series called Radio by children accused of being witches which catalogs the experiences of the child victims in their own words. As we reported Wednesday, South Africa Pagan Rights Alliance is now holding its yearly 30 Days of Advocacy campaign to raise awareness in its own country  – another hard hit by these witch accusations. The list goes on.

While the world grapples with this wide-spread problem, it raises many questions concerning religious freedom and more. Where does religious practice end and child abuse begin? Who gets to draw that line? Even if Ukpabio and others like her are stopped, there are still millions who have been raised with this very real cultural fear of witchcraft as defined by those teachings. Where and how does the process of effective education start in order to prevent future abuse by new ministers who could easily step into Ukpabio shoes?

30days

This past week we witnessed a crescendo of frustration and fury fly from the global Pagan community in the direction of a Facebook Fan Page called “Witches Must Die by Fire” and a Facebook Group called “Those Witches nd Wizzards [sic] should die by Fire by Force.”  The rally cries came by way of social media, blogs and email.  At this point, I would include the links but the “pages” were removed by Facebook around 4pm EST on Thursday, August 23 2013.

FB PageThese offending Facebook “pages” advocated for the extrication and burning of alleged witches and wizards throughout the world. Using a Christian fundamentalist context, the moderators repeatedly preached their gospel on the evils of witchcraft while celebrating all attempts to defeat it.  As proof of witchcraft’s existence, the Fan Page displayed a photo of a South African-Zimbabwe sensationalist rag called H Metro Zim with a headline that read something like “Woman gives birth to frogs…daily.”

Let’s first examine the pages themselves and who owned them? The answer is important because it contextualizes the accusations and religious zealotry. The Facebook Group, “Those Witches nd Wizzards [sic] should die by Fire by Force” appears to have been launched in February of 2013.  It was moderated solely or in part by a Botswanan Pastor named Anthony Matildah, whose own personal Facebook page seems to have also disappeared. The 247 member group communicated in both broken-English and native African dialects including Setswana.  Most of its members were from the sub-Saharan countries of Africa.

The Facebook Fan Page called “Witches Must Die by Fire” was launched on April 3, 2013 by someone of sub-Saharan African-descent. However, this person confessed to “not [having] been back to Africa in 20 years.” He or she communicated in perfect British English and in at least one other African dialect. Based on my own research, I believe the owner resides in the U.K. as did the majority of the users making up the Page’s 340 likes. In recent years, Scotland Yard has in fact noticed an increase in the number of Witch Hunt cases in the UK and a noticeable growth in popularity of U.K.-based African Christian Churches. It is entirely possible that the page owner was a Pastor or, at the very least, a devout follower.

sapralogoAt first everyone assumed that the two pages had the same owner(s); however, they in fact may have no connection.  Regardless, they were certainly aligned through intent and discourse.  Both advocated for faith-based violence and, in doing so, perpetuated a culture of fear rampant in sub-Saharan Africa. Damon Leff, Director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), coordinator of the Petition to Stop WItch Hunts in South Africa and Founder of Touchstone Advocacy said:

[Witchcraft] accusations occur not only in small impoverished villages…. Accusations occur across economic and social status lines.  Accusations are frequently made by ordinary people, not necessarily Christians, and not necessarily as a result of Christian influence. Traditional African beliefs often drive accusations, where traditional healers do play their role by divining suspects of suspected witchcraft activity…No single African country has been immune to its fair share of witch-hunts. Many of these countries already have legislation that forbids accusations of witchcraft… However [this] legislation does not address or seek to correct the beliefs which motivate accusations.

As suggested by Leff and noted in a BBC article on the subject, witchcraft in these cases is defined by a supernatural practice with clear malicious intent. The beliefs are a fusion of fundamentalist Christianity and traditional African folk beliefs. Some pastors use the fear of witchcraft to extort money out of their congregation and have even convinced parents to abuse their own children. This witchcraft is a distorted product of theological extremism gone very, very wrong.

accusation

As such the witchcraft in these cases is not the same as the Witchcraft practiced within the spiritual or ethical framework of a Pagan or Nature-based religion or any other similar positive folk or healing practice. The verbal attacks made on these two Facebook pages were not anti-Pagan.  As best clarified by Circle Magazine Editor Florence Edwards-Miller, this distinction is not at all dissimilar to the Anti-Defamation League’s differentiation between anti-Semitism (a people) and anti-Judaism (a theology.) The Facebook pages attacked a people, not a theology.

However, as pointed out by Damon Leff:

Witch-hunters will never first ask if their victims are Pagan Witches before attacking, as they are unlikely to draw any distinction between one kind of witch or another, and so it is understandable that Witches everywhere should feel personally offended and threatened.

cog-joint-logoAnd, offended we were. Sometime in April “Witches and Wizzards” and “Witches Must Die By Fire,” began receiving counter posts and complaints from concerned Pagans.  However, the Fan Page went private from April to August during which interest waned.  When the Fan Page reappeared on the scene, an avalanche of protests began which included abuse complaints to Facebook, calls to media affiliates, petitions on Change.org, You Tube Videos and blog posts. Babette Petiot of “News & Liens Paienne” even contacted Interpol which is based in her home town of Lyon, France.

As word spread, Pagan organizations became involved. On August 20, Lady Liberty League issued an open letter to Facebook asking it to “revise [its] decision and disable these and all future pages calling for violent witch hunts anywhere.” On the same day, the Covenant of the Goddess responded by saying, it “cannot condone a public call for the death of any one person or group regardless of religious affiliation or lifestyle choice.”

Pagan FederationIn Russia, Pagan Federation co-coordinator Gwiddon said, “What is surprising to me is the reaction of Facebook staff that seems to be completely ignoring this issue, despite the repeated notifications from witches and pagans.” In the U.K., The Pagan Federation’s Mike Stygal agreed asking “why [should] Facebook allow pages that are clearly aimed at inciting hatred, violence and murder to continue to grace their social network?”

With 100s of complaints being turned away or ignored entirely, there was nothing to explain Facebook’s decision. On Tuesday I was able to reach Facebook’s Public Policy and Communication Department. After several exchanges, they promised to be in touch with an explanation. But the pages went down before I ever got a response. So I contacted Facebook again.  They confirmed that the pages were removed by them.  Then they offered this short explanation when I asked “What happened?”

With over one billion users worldwide, we always encourage our users to report content that they believe violates our policies here and it looks like we didn’t receive any violations [on these pages]…. It could be possible that users may have reported that they violated under different terms…”   

As the moderator of an international free-speech forum, Facebook handles two million abuse reports per week. As Emily Brazelton explains in her book Sticks and Stones, the Facebook system is mostly automated leaving reviewers only seconds to handle each complaint.  If two identical complaints are rejected, any future similar complaints are ignored. (Brazelton, Sticks and Stones, pg 268-269)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

It may be that our voices were, at first, lost in that automated shuffle. However, in the end our mounting pressure broke through and Facebook took corrective actions to uphold its own policies. In reaction, the Covenant of the Goddess together with the Lady Liberty League responded with gratitude urging “the Pagan community to join [them] in expressing [their] thanks to Facebook for listening and making this positive change.” They added:

We hope Facebook will to continue to be a leader in the effort to address violence and hate wherever it festers.

This felt like a win for many of us who celebrated from behind our computer screens.  But was it really?  Should we even be celebrating? What are we celebrating? The notoriety of these pages took us, first world Pagans, to a place labeled “witchcraft” where our nature- spirituality, our ethics, our mythology and our beliefs intersect with something far more horrifying.  While these Facebook pages may not have been directed toward us, in viewing them we reached a point of liminality where distinctions between Witchcraft and witchcraft were no longer made.  That is scary.

Now that the pages are down, we can move beyond that surreal point back into the security of our own world. Unfortunately, the removal of these two Facebook pages created no comfort for those living in the affected regions of Africa or elsewhere. Should this week’s events be a wake-up call for Pagans and Witches worldwide to reconsider our relationship with the accused? Now that the “fire” is put out, should we re-evaluate our responsibility, as a People who claim the word Witch, to those people who are dying because of the word witch?

Never Again the Burning Times??

Courtesy of Flickr's emilydickinsonridesabmx

Courtesy of Flickr’s emilydickinsonridesabmx

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

(Credit: Wikimedia/DarkGeometryStudios via Shutterstock/Salon)

(Credit: Wikimedia/DarkGeometryStudios via Shutterstock/Salon)

  • Let’s start off with Salon.com’s follow-up to the outing of rogue Wikipedia editor “Qworty,” which focuses on his strange vendetta against Pagan, esoteric, and occult pages. In the piece Andrew Leonard links to my run-down of the story, and manages to dig up some new information as well. Quote: “Every page deleted or altered by Young on grounds of self-promotion or conflict-of-interest clearly deserves a second look. And that great effort is already well under way. The Neo-Pagans are clamoring for the return of some of their deleted pages and scouring those that survived the purge to see which of Young’s cuts will be reverted. But Young didn’t confine himself to questions of notability or conflict-of-interest when tangling with the Pagans; he also challenged the basic tenets of Pagan spirituality. Wikipedia, he argued, should be debunking such things as Wiccan rituals or the exploration of drug-induced conciousness-raising, rather than reporting them.” This experience has left some Pagan Wikipedia editors disillusioned, to put it lightly. It will be interesting to see how things progress from this point. 
  • The branding of children as “witches” by pastors in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues. The BBC has a new documentary where a British citizen who was born in the DRC finds out her cousin has been accused of witchcraft and races to find her. Quote: “Journeying from her home in London to her birthplace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kevani tries to discover how ancient traditions have been hijacked in the name of Jesus, why families are singling out vulnerable children and hurting them and why toddlers are having to endure excruciating rituals in order to ‘rid them of demons’.” It should be noted that branding children as witches is illegal in the Congo now, but the pastors seem unconcerned.
  • The book “Ritual” by David Pinner, which inspired the 1973 film “The Wicker Man” is going to be getting a sequel. Pinner told Rue Morgue Magazine that he’s written a book set 30 years later entitled “The Wicca Woman.” Quote: “I’ve just completed the sequel to Ritual, after all these years, called The Wicca Womanthe children who are in Ritual are grown up in this. It’s set 30 years later just before the millennium. Wicker Man obsessives will no doubt want to keep an eye out for this one. Meanwhile, StudioCanal continues its hunt for lost footage from the 1973 film’s original cut in hopes of releasing a complete anniversary edition. 
  • Christianity in Britain could be declining faster than originally thought according to a new analysis of the 2011 UK census data. Quote: “A new analysis of the 2011 census shows that a decade of mass immigration helped mask the scale of decline in Christian affiliation among the British-born population – while driving a dramatic increase in Islam, particularly among the young. It suggests that only a minority of people will describe themselves as Christians within the next decade, for first time.” We may see a truly post-Christian Britain in our lifetimes. That new analysis is from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, by the way. 
  • John Macintyre, former president of the Scottish Pagan Federation, is interviewed by Patheos.com about the importance of Pagan involvement in interfaith. Quote: “Interfaith is not a threat, it doesn’t aim to change what Paganism is, still less to merge it into some kind of ‘one size fits all’ universal religion. It allows us to educate other faith groups and the wider society about the reality of modern Paganism, to challenge prejudice and negative stereotyping close to its sources, and to make a positive contribution as one of the many faith communities that make up our society.”
Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte

  • Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” writes about the Vatican’s ongoing battle with the cult of Santa Muerte. Quote: “In addition to theological objections, the current religious economy of Mexico and Latin America provides a compelling explanation not only for the condemnation of narco-saints but also for other dynamic religious competitors. For the past three decades both national bishops’ conferences and the Vatican have inveighed against the “invasion of the sects” in Latin America. Of course, Pentecostals, the most vibrant of the Church’s competitors, have been the primary object of condemnation, but Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Age groups and Spiritists have also been singled out.” 
  • PNC-Minnesota has an update on Pagan-initiated tornado relief efforts in Oklahoma. Quote: “As of Saturday, Solar Cross has collected $545 in donations and was able to send 400 N95 rated respirators, 58 pairs of work gloves, 50 safety goggles, 20 tarps, and 10 shovels. Tillison said, ‘Thank you thank you thank you! Your donations will be distributed within 24 hours of the time they arrive and sent out to Little Axe, Newcastle and the outlying areas that are not receiving the outpouring the greater area of Moore is.'” You can read my initial report on this, here.
  • When talking about legal protections, “who’s a journalist” is the wrong question. Quote: “When considering whether to grant legal protection for the gathering and dissemination of information, the question should not be the person performing those acts, i.e., “who is a journalist?,” but “is this an act of journalism?” Before the user-generated content revolution, focusing on journalists (i.e., people defined by their institutional affiliations) served as a functional if rough approximation of the true interests at stake (i.e., debate on issues of public concern). That is no longer the case.” This issue is an important one for all us Pagan media types who are not affiliated with a recognized institution. 
  • Paul Louis Metzger argues that sometimes Christians create the “idols” for modern Pagans out of ignorance of our actual beliefs and practices. Quote: “We Christians need to be on guard in our understanding of such movements as contemporary Paganism. We tend to lump all of modern Paganism into one general and distorted category. We often fail to account for the vast complexity within the movement and articulate Paganism accurately. For all our concern about pagan idolatry, we may be guilty at times of making their idols for them. We need to develop the practice of respect for understanding their practices, rituals, and beliefs.”
  • Wiccan love spells: sometimes they (kinda) work (at least for awhile). Quote: “Yes, I shed a few tears, but not because I was in love with him. I cried because the spell hadn’t worked, at least not all the way, and I was now forced to revert to being a Party of One after having had a brief, haunting reminder of the cozier aspects of being in a relationship.”

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

In North America and the UK the “Satanic” moral panics of the 1980s and 1990s are seen as an unfortunate rement of the recent past. A time when fear of secret “occult” and “Satanic” forces led innocent men and women to be accused of, and sometimes imprisoned for, imagined ghastly crimes against children. Sadly, these panics are not a remnant of the past, they continue to flare up across the world, and now that modern Pagan religions are truly global in scope, we are increasingly involved in, or endangered by, these panics.

Wiccan Ipsita Roy Chakraverti with her daughter Deepta, holding a crystal star in their hand

Wiccan Ipsita Roy Chakraverti with her daughter Deepta, holding a crystal star in their hand.

I think it is imperative that we start thinking of ourselves as a global movement. We aren’t just in Europe and the West, modern Pagans are endangered in Syria and Egypt, and the surviving Pagan religions of Russia (and their modern cousins) are increasingly threatened by draconian laws against “extremism.” We are in Africa and India, we are global in scope, we are no longer a handful of visionaries in England, New York, and California. This does not mean we should improperly claim innocent victims of witch-hunts as “ours,” but we should recognize that we can’t ignore the ramifications of ongoing attacks on “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” and the “occult” in nations across this planet. The boundaries are now getting too blurry to pretend it won’t become a major issue for us in the decades to come.

A procession of Pagans at the last Parliament of the World's Religions.

A procession of Pagans at the last Parliament of the World’s Religions.

It is for this reason, among others, that I think Pagan involvement with the global-scale interfaith movement is vital. As these issues intensify, it is imperative that Pagan voices are in a place where we can be heard. Where we can connect with influential men and women in positions to help us. Individuals like Don Frew, Patrick McCollumAndras Corban ArthenPhyllis CurottGus diZerega, or Angie Buchanan are going to be increasingly vital to how we are perceived outside our most populous strongholds. We have to move beyond the romantic ideas about who we are, and were, and work harder on pragmatic advances that will help all Pagans (and our allies). In addition, here in North America, the UK, Australia, and other places where being an out Pagan is (relatively) safer, we need to continue our outreach and dialog with African Traditional Religions, African Diasporic faiths, and other traditions who are experiencing the brunt of ill-informed and discriminatory beliefs about their practices.

Modern Paganism has been more successful than I think many people could have anticipated, and with that success comes new and greater challenges as we move forward. I think we are able to overcome these obstacles, but only if we are ready to take a clear-eyed view of what is happening in the world.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah's Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

An invocation is offered by Indra Neelameggham of Utah’s Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple at the beginning of the Jan. 7 inauguration ceremonies for Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Greg Bell inside the rotunda of the Utah Capitol. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

  • Deseret News reports on Indra Neelameggham, the first Hindu (and first woman) to ever give an opening invocation at a Utah governor’s inauguration. Quote:  “It is a prayer for peace, happiness, harmony and contentment, Sen. (Orrin) Hatch and (former) Gov. (Jon M.) Huntsman both told me after the ceremony that they thought my prayer was inspiring, so I guess it went pretty well […]  So many people believe that in Utah we are just a Mormon community,” she said. “Certainly that is the predominant religion, but we are so much more than just that. And I think they wanted someone to represent that diversity.” Neelameggham is a member of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah, and a pivotal figure in Utah’s Hindu community.
  • So remember last week when I reported on a theistic Satanic group in Florida (The Satanic Temple) that’s planning to hold a rally on January 25th in solidarity with Gov. Rick Scott’s support of a school “inspirational messages” law? At the time I said that “I have no idea if this is serious, or if someone is engaging in some next-level trolling.”Well, it turns out it was the latter:  “[Lucien] Greaves is listed as the casting director of a feature film called …wait for it…The Satanic Temple. […] The casting call said the movie was a mockumentary about the “nicest Satanic Cult in the world.” It was seeking actors for eight speaking roles “to play minions” and 10 featured extras.” So there you go.  It’s a would-be mockumentary.
  • The U.S. Forest Service has found a relationship between the loss of trees and a downturn in human health and life expectancy.  Quote: “The “relationship between trees and human health,” as they put it, is convincingly strong. They controlled for as many other demographic factors as possible. And yet, they are unable to satisfactorily explain why this might be so […] there is something fascinatingly mysterious about the entanglement of our health with that of nature. The suspicion that this may be so, of course, is seen well outside of the scientific literature on the topic […] Henry David Thoreau, writing in The Atlantic in June 1862, said, ‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.'”
  • John Beckett, a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) and Vice President of CUUPS National, has joined the Patheos Pagan Portal as a blogger. Quote: “This blog is part of my spiritual journey. Sometimes I write about what’s going on in my life. Sometimes I write about what’s in the news or what’s abuzz on the Pagan internet. There are some recurring themes: the nature of the Universe, the origins of religion, developing relationships with the spirits of nature, with our ancestors, and with our gods and goddesses. Spiritual growth. Magic. Building vibrant religious communities. And perhaps most importantly, how to combine all that into a spiritual practice that builds a better world here and now.” Congratulations to John, Patheos is lucky to have you.
  • Radio Netherlands profiles 18-year-old Adrien Adandé of Benin, a High School student by day, and a Vodun priest by night. Quote:  “As soon as he gets home from school, 18-year-old Adrien Adandé slips out of his high school uniform and into his voodoo priest robes. A large crowd is already queuing outside for consultations. Adandé took over the practice from his father, who initiated him into the Voodoo rites before his death. ‘As a child, I was my father’s only son who was interested in what he was doing at the convent,’ the teenager recalls. ‘Along the way, he taught me things and showed me the secrets.'” It’s an interesting piece, featuring several perspectives on Vodun in Benin.
  • The Telegraph in India check in with  Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, India’s most famous Wiccan. Quote: “Draped in a black cloak, Chakraverti put 70-odd students of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, under a spell on January 9 as she spoke about ghosts and planchettes and decoded Wiccan symbols. “Black is a witch’s favourite colour. It stands for enigma and dignity in Wicca. The broom signifies a woman being liberated from household activities and flying away in search of identity. The conical hat is a symbol of concentration and free-flowing thought,” she explained.”
  • Think Africa Press notes that blaming traditional African belief systems for witchcraft-related crimes and persecutions ignores that most of these harmful and violent manifestations are modern inventions, and that Pentecostal and evangelical churches have had a large influence in their development. Quote: “Today’s witchcraft beliefs and practices are as much products of modern dynamics as they are informed by long-standing tradition. Witchcraft beliefs are not remnants of ‘pre-modern’ cultures but contemporary phenomena embedded in, and partly constituted by, specific and current cultural and socio-economic contexts.”
Seen on Wednesday is all that remains of the controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

The remains of a controversial Santa Muerte statue located at the San Benito Municipal Cemetery. (Photo: San Benito News)

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

spirits

 

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church, is making a historic trip to Cuba at the end of March, the first papal visit since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. This high-profile trip has many people buzzing as to its significance, and what it means as Cuba’s communist government looks towards a post-Castro era. What is clear, is that the Pope will not be meeting with any leaders or practitioners of Santeria / Lukumi during his three-day stint in Cuba, despite a hurtful snub from the last Pope’s visit.

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

Pope Benedict XVI at the Assisi interfaith gathering. (Getty Images)

“The 84-year-old pope’s schedule is considerably shorter than John Paul’s five-day visit was, and it includes no events with Santeros, or leaders of any other religions for that matter. A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Benedict’s schedule could still be tweaked, but he absolutely ruled out a meeting with Santería representatives. Lombardi said Santería does not have an “institutional leadership,” which the Vatican is used to dealing with in cases when it arranges meetings with other religions. “It is not a church” in the traditional sense, Lombardi said.”

During Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Santeria practitioners were blatantly left out. The Catholic Church’s head met with representatives from Jewish, Orthodox, and Evangelical churches, institutions that oversee tiny minorities on the island, while an estimated 80% of Cubans participate in some form of Santeria or other syncretic African religious practice. Can you imagine a religious tour of a land that ignores 80% of the actual religious practice and still be seen as valid? At least one Cuban Santero, Lazaro Cuesta, is bitter over the treatment his faith received from Catholic leaders in the past.

“…we live in the basement, where nobody sees us …we have already seen one pope visit … and at no moment did he see fit to talk to us.”

One should not be surprised, for as much as Pope Benedict likes to talk about dialog with indigenous and traditional non-Christian faiths, he seems hesitant to actually engage in it. Even when perfect opportunities lay before him.

On Saturday, he traveled to Ouidah on Benin’s Atlantic coast, more or less the Vatican of voodoo. Historically, Benin has been the cradle of voodoo in West Africa, and it remains a huge presence. A famed python temple is right across the street from Ouidah’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a reminder of how Catholicism and voodoo live cheek by jowl.

One might think the trip afforded a chance to open lines of communication with a religious movement that enjoys a vast following, estimated at between 30 million and 60 million people worldwide — comparable to the global footprint of, say, Methodism.

Yet Benedict never made any reference to voodoo, and didn’t meet a priest or other exponent. His rhetoric in Ouidah, asserting that Christianity represents a triumph over “occultism and evil spirits,” was taken by some as a swipe. That produced some resentment in a country that’s proud of its unique religious heritage — Jan. 10, for instance, is marked as “voodoo day.”

If Benedict won’t deign to visit practitioners of Vodun in its very birthplace, even after much speculation that he might, what hope does Santeria have in Cuba? One can only imagine that this trend of avoidance goes beyond mere discomfort, or fear of unscripted moments of truth-telling, or even traditionalist furor, into outright animus against any and all non-monotheistic “pagan” faiths. Benedict, when he was Cardinal, lashed out at Catholic interfaith efforts when he thought they might be getting too chummy with African animists, he also called Buddhism narcissistic in nature, and predicted it would replace Marxism as the Church’s main enemy.

This behavior continued once Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In 2007 Benedict asserted that indigenous populations in South America were“silently longing” for the Christian faith of the colonizersAt the recent Assisi gathering the Pope made clear that four token agnostics were invited “so that God, the true God, becomes accessible” to them. He has mocked and criticized “paganism” in any form one could imagine, describing pre-Christian gods as “questionable” and unable to provide hope, and engaged in a kind of Holocaust revisionism by saying that Nazi-ism was born of “neo-paganism.” During his Papacy the practice of exorcism has boomed once more, a practice that explicitly lists adherence to other faiths as a sign of demon possession.

Only the most blinkered Catholic partisan could look at these instances and not see a unifying theme. A message that true “interfaith” and “dialog” only exists in the Catholic Church between faiths it is forced to respect through social or political power. Or in very rare instances, when it is shamed into changing its behavior. Twelve years ago Pope John Paul II issued a historic apology for the sins of the Catholic Church. He apologized to Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and to native peoples. But apologies have to be backed by action to mean something. So long as Benedict continues his trend of ignoring or insulting “non-institutional” indigenous, traditional, and Pagan religions, we all, to paraphrase Lazaro Cuesta, will continue to live in the Catholic basement.

News did not grind to a halt while I was away at the AAR Annual Meeting, and I have a few important updates on previously reported stories here at The Wild Hunt that I’d like to share with you before I continue unpacking my AAR coverage.

James Arthur Ray Sentenced: Perhaps the biggest news to break while I was away is that New Age guru James Arthur Ray, who was convicted in June of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in a 2009 sweat lodge ceremony he led at a retreat in Sedona, has been sentenced to two years in prison (three two-year concurrent sentences) and fined nearly $60,000 in restitution for his crimes.

Prosecutors had sought consecutive three-year sentences for James Arthur Ray on each of the three counts of negligent homicide on which a jury convicted him. The judge instead imposed three two-year terms, to be served concurrently. Ray and his attorneys asked for probation, but Judge Warren R. Darrow said the evidence shows “extreme negligence on the part of Mr. Ray.” “A prison sentence is just mandated in this case,” he said.

Victim’s families and Native American activists alike are both unhappy that Ray didn’t get a longer sentence, though Lakota elder Marvin Youngdog did hope the conviction would act as a deterrent to others appropriating and misusing Native ceremonies. Quote: “Now, he’s a convicted felon; let the word go out to others.” From all accounts an appeal seems likely. This story has been covered extensively by The Wild Hunt, as I feel this case, and the issues it raises have ramifications for the wider Pagan community. Here’s some highlights of my past coverage: “Reactions to Ray Verdict from Native Voices, Victim’s Families, and Pagan Community,” “James Arthur Ray Trial Begins,” “Checking in With James Arthur Ray,” and “The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy.” You can be sure we’ll be following future developments.

Pope Benedict XVI and Vodun Leaders: While I was heading to San Francisco to be among religion scholars, the head of the Roman Catholic Church was headed to Benin for a three-day visit to the West African country of Benin, birthplace of Vodun (aka Voodoo). Anticipating this planned visit, I wondered what the pontiff would say to Vodun leaders in a planned meeting.  As the BBC notes, Vodun is “completely normal” there, an interwoven part of the culture, and Vodun leaders like Dah Aligbonon Akpochihala (mentioned previously on this site) were hoping for words of reconciliation and bridge-building.

High-ranking Voodoo priests have been invited to meet the Pope. One of the Voodoo leaders, Dah Aligbonon, said he hoped the pontiff would urge Roman Catholics to be more tolerant of Africa’s traditional religions. “I invite the Pope to tell his followers to stop acts of provocation against the Voodoo culture,” he said, Reuters reports.

So what happened? So far I haven’t been able to find any accounts of the meeting(s), and what was said. However, there’s been some side-coverage of the Pope’s interactions with Vodun and African Traditional Religions in Benin. The National Catholic Reporter notes that Benedict “urged Catholics to resist a ‘syncretism which deceives’ and to uphold a Christian faith that ‘liberates from occultism’ and ‘vanquishes evil spirits.'” On a somewhat more positive note The Washington Post reports that the new papal document unveiled in Benin,  “Africae Munus” (”The Commitment of Africa”), “stresses the importance of dialogue with Islam and practitioners of indigenous African religions.” I’ll be writing more about this topic once first-hand accounts of the Vodun meetings emerge.

Haiti’s Vodou Tourism: Turning from Vodun in Benin to Vodou in Haiti, we pick up on a story I first noticed back in SeptemberHaitian President Michel Martelly wants to “rebrand” Haiti, and Vodou tourism is part of that vision. In Martelly’s first address to the United Nations he said: “Do you know how many people would like to come to Haiti and try to understand what Voodoo is?” This was no idle rhetorical question as Haiti’s new tourism minister, Stéphanie Balmir Villedrouin, is already utilizing the allure of Vodou to boost ambitious plans for a new tourism industry for the island nation.

“Because we are talking of Voodoo, and there again, it is an initiation to what makes us unique and gives us the force to propose, Haiti on the most popular tourist routes as is now the Caribbean basin. Haiti as a must-visit, because its cry at the world is and remains “Unique Haiti, magic Haiti ! (bewitching, fascinating)” Although recognized as a religion and institutionally to the equal of all others, since 1992, Voodoo is more that this normative and formal status ; it marries and inspires all fields of conscious as the unconscious of every Haitian. It is the starting point of the Foundation of our Nation. Voodoo is in Everything, it is tautological in the expressions of each, both at the level of the laborious daily, than at the level of representations of the artistic creation (dance, music, literature, cuisine, cinema, painting and sculpture) both traditional and modern.”

Former Haitian presidential candidate Jean H. Charles has lauded the appointment of Villedrouin, calling her one of three Haitian women who represented the country’s “highest good,” and noting that Haiti has “immense” potential as a tourist destination, specifically listing Vodou-related events. So it looks like Vodou tourism is full-steam ahead in Haiti. What this will mean for Vodou, both in Haiti and abroad, should be an interesting question to follow in the months and years to come.

That’s all I have for now, but stay tuned for more AAR-related coverage and other great Pagan-oriented news updates!

Just a few quick news notes for you on this Saturday.

Hinduism in Africa: The Times of India reports on the rapid growth of Hinduism in Ghana and neighboring Togo, exploding from just small group in the 1970s to between 2000 and 3000 families today. How did Hinduism grow in Ghana, which is 70% Christian? Through example.

“We have not achieved this through the winning of souls as other religions do, but have attracted people into the practice of Hinduism simply by the lives we lead,” [Kwesi Anamoah] said, adding: “Our lives shine in the community to attract people.” […] “We do not evangelise like other faiths do, but we have attracted people because they see how we live our lives as Hindus and come to make enquiries and then find their way into our folds.”

One has to wonder if this is something we’ll see more and more of in the future. In Indonesia the ancestor-worshipping religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak, is being cannily re-branded as Hinduism in order to stave off Christian missionaries and cultural eradication. Could African forms of Hinduism be providing a similar umbrella to indigenous forms of religion and spirituality in Ghana and Togo as well? What new religious hybrids will emerge from the intersections of Hinduism and indigenous beliefs? As India grows as a world power could we see Hinduism became a new alternative for those seeking to escape missionary efforts from the dominant monotheisms? We should keep an eye on this trend.

Michigan’s Bullying Law: An increasing amount of attention has been paid recently to Michigan’s proposed anti-bullying law, which recently passed through the Senate, due to the “moral” and “religious” exemptions inserted into the language. These exemptions, critics argue, make the law a meaningless piece of paper, giving bullies a loophole they can easily exploit.

“The Senate Republicans took an already ineffective bill and made it an abusive bill that justifies bullying against our students. While the national spotlight is on the neglectful actions of the Senate Republicans, House Republicans can pass the strong, comprehensive, enumerated bill Governor Snyder references when he recommends Michigan legislators model this legislation after the State Board of Education policy. Oregon wasted ten years following a policy that accomplished almost nothing before it took responsibility for Oregon kids and passed the effective enumerated language Michigan advocates are requesting. Michigan has the data and case studies to do what is right for our students the first time. The nation is watching.”

These exemptions bring the case of Tempest Smith immediately to mind, a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied for her interest in Wicca, and manner of dress. The Michigan law, as it stands, would simply allow religiously-motivated harassment of kids like Tempest, you can almost see the scenario of ineffectual school officials saying they can do nothing. All students should have 1st Amendment freedoms, but a bullying law that exempts “moral” bullying under the guise of free speech is worthless. One can only hope that the language is refined to close off loopholes, and becomes something truly useful in empowering teachers and officials to stop bullying in their schools.

Keystone XL Pipeline: On Thursday the State Department announced that it was postponing construction of a new pipeline that would move tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries. The pipeline, known as Keystone XL, was hugely controversial among environmentalists and American Indian groups due to its proposed path through sensitive areas and reservation land. Now, with the pipeline postponed for further study, Native American activists are voicing cautious optimism at the development.

“I have come here to be part of this peaceful circle of people to shine a light on President Obama to be visionary and deny a corporate plan whose promise of destruction of our lands is certain,” Lakota activist Debra White Plume said in a speech at the protest. “President Obama will be an Earth Warrior, standing in the way of something bad coming toward the people, or he will step aside for TransCanada to foul our water, land, and health for generations to come.”

The Pagan Newswire Collective’s nature and environment blog, No Unsacred Place, has been covering the pipeline and its environmental ramifications, with contributor John Beckett noting that “it’s hard to look at the photos of tar sands extraction and not think it’s bad. It’s hard to calculate the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer and not think it’s bad. It’s hard to think about exacerbating climate change and not think it’s bad.” Here’s hoping that this delay will result in a compromise that’s acceptable to all parties interested in this issue.

That’s all I have for right now, have a great day!

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.