Archives For Ali Sibat

Top Story: Today is Veteran’s Day, and we here at The Wild Hunt would like to give our thanks to all military personnel and their families for their service and sacrifices. Today is also an excellent time to think of the modern Pagans and Heathens currently serving in the military and offer them our support. A great way to do that is to support Operation Circle Care.

“For the fourth year in a row, Circle Sanctuary is honoring and supporting active duty Pagan service members through Operation Circle Care. This year, we are widening our focus and sending Yuletide care packages to active duty Pagan troops serving in any overseas theater of operation, including Germany, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, or on board Navy ships. The success of this program is due to the generous support and donations from Pagan community members from many paths and places. With your continued support, it is our goal to honor and remember each and every Pagan US military service member we can with a special personalized gift for Yule, just as we have in years past.”

Operation Circle Care is looking for contacts, donated items, and funds to help in this project. You can find details at their web site. If you know of similar efforts in other countries, or other Pagan organizations that are organizing care packages or other services, please let me know in the comments.

A Warrior’s Conscientious Objection: On a somewhat related note, we turn to the issue of conscientious objection to war. Up till now its been largely treated by the US government as an all-or-nothing enterprise, you either had to be a pacifist who objected to all conflict (like Quakers or some Pagans), or you were signed up to follow orders no matter what (lest risking dishonorable discharge or even a tribunal). But now a coalition of religious leaders and veterans are calling for the right to morally object to individual conflicts.

“In a report issued Wednesday (Nov. 10), the Truth Commission on Conscience in War called on the military to revise its rules to include “selective conscientious objection,” and urged religious leaders to address issues of conscience during wartime … The report states that current rules about conscientious objection requires an objection to “war in any form,” creating a conflict for those who may have specific moral objections to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It denies freedom of religious practice and the exercise of moral conscience to those serving in the military who object to a particular war based on the moral criteria of just war, which the military itself teaches and upholds as important,” the report reads. The report notes that military rules dating to the time of the Vietnam draft leave no legal basis for objection for someone who believes “participation implicates them in an immoral war or in war crimes.”

Such a change would be very much in keeping with many Pagan and Heathen ideas of warrior ethics and culture. Allowing participation in honorable or just conflicts while also leaving room for non-participation in situations that they feel could violate their personal/religious/cultural code of honor. Whether the military would ever be open to such a change is an open question. For those who want more information about this initiative, check out the Truth Commission on Conscience in War’s web site.

The Fate of Ali Sibat: When we last checked in with Lebanese citizen Ali Sibat, who was nearly executed for the crime of sorcery in Saudi Arabia but given a last-minute reprieve due to protests and political maneuvering, was still in a cell awaiting some word of his ultimate fate. Now news has come that a Saudi court has formally rejected his death sentence and that he be deported after a new trial.

“Saudi Arabia’s high court has rejected the execution sentence of a Lebanese man convicted of sorcery and recommended that he be deported after a new trial, a newspaper reported Thursday. The Supreme Court in Riyadh said that the death sentence for Ali Sabat was not warranted because he had not harmed anyone and had no prior offences in the country, Okaz said. The court said his case should be sent back to a lower court in Medina to be retried and recommended that Sabat, who has spent 30 months in Saudi prison since his May 2008 arrest, be deported, Okaz said.”

How long this process will take remains to be seen, but it does look like this long nightmare is finally ending for Sibat. Sadly the same can’t be said for other men and women being held in Saudi Arabia for crimes of “sorcery”, like Sudanese citizen Abdul Hamid al-Fakki, or Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali. One can only hope that discontent with the religious police grows, and we see an end to this madness.

The Further Unintended Consequences of Oklahoma’s Anti-Sharia Amendment: I’ve already discussed some of the problems with the recent anti-Sharia amendment passed by Oklahoma voters, but now even more voices are emerging to discuss the unintended consequences of this move to theoretically protect us from “creeping Sharia” law. First, the Oklahoma Indian Affairs Commission released an official memo on October 20 opposing the amendment, saying it could affect the “damage the sovereignty of all Oklahoma tribes.”

SQ 755, as written, prohibits an Oklahoma state court from applying any law but Oklahoma or U. S. law to settle a dispute. Further, the proposed constitutional amendment inhibits state courts from looking to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures for a decision. The language of this proposed amendment starkly reminds us that some Oklahoma lawmakers forgot that our nation and state were built on the principles, blood, and backs of “other nations and cultures,” namely, our tribes. It also ignores that Oklahoma tribes have become valuable economic partners with the State that it cannot afford to ignore or exclude.

If SQ 755 is approved, the lack of specific tribal law language could easily be interpreted by a state judge to leave no room to refer to a tribe’s law to determine the existence of a valid waiver of a tribe’s sovereign immunity, for example. Thus, SQ 755 has the potential to provide state court judges with yet another opportunity to further erode tribal sovereignty. A state court judge could rely on the amendment’s absence of recognition of any tribal law to avoid or disavow its application. Tribes and tribal members should be aware of this glaring omission for Oklahoma courts to look to and apply our tribal laws when appropriate, and vote on this question accordingly.

In addition to possibly damaging tribal sovereignty in the name of fighting Muslim theocracy the amendment is getting knocked about by the majority of commentators at the center-right politics site Politico. A judge has granted a temporary block to the amendment while the court battles commence.

Medicine Man Confidentiality: A murder trial in Canada is testing whether minority faiths and cultures are afforded the same privileges as the dominant religious traditions. Minneconjou historian Donovin Sprague claims that confidentiality between a medicine man and their clients is a well understood concept in that culture and should be respected.

Sprague said he based his opinions on his own traditional upbringing and knowledge of tribal culture, as well as on his discussions with spiritual leaders Arvol Looking Horse, Rick Two Dogs and Wilmer Mesteth. Seventh Circuit Judge Jack Delaney tried to pin Sprague down on just how far that commitment to confidentiality would go. If a child were found murdered in a traditional camp and someone confessed to a medicine man, he asked, would the medicine man still maintain confidentiality? “Traditionally … I don’t think it would be revealed,” Sprague said, but he was quick to say that one medicine man might not operate in the same way as another medicine man would. “There wasn’t like a written set of rules governing what we’re talking about here, really. … He would use his discretion what he wanted to do.”

The trial involves John Graham, who is charged with the 1975 rape and murder of Annie Mae Aquash. The motion on whether confidentiality would stand has not been ruled on yet. Whichever way the judge decides could have lasting ramifications on indigenous and minority religions in Canada, and how far confidentiality between a spiritual/religious leader and their client can go.

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

Let’s start off your weekend with a few quick notes.

Another Fortunetelling Law Overturned: The Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that fortunetelling and other psychic services are protected speech and cannot be outlawed by local ordinances. The ruling stems from a long legal battle by Montgomery County resident Nick Nefedro, who has been mentioned at this blog before, and his win may be the most devastating blow yet to laws targeting fortunetelling.

“Fortunetelling may be pure entertainment, it may give individuals some insight into the future or it may be hokum,” the Maryland Court of Appeals wrote in a 24-page opinion. “People who purchase fortunetelling services may or may not believe in its value. Fortunetellers may sometimes deceive their customers. We need not, however, pass judgment on the validity or the value of the speech that fortunetelling entails.”

Previous cases that overturned anti-fortunetelling ordinances often did so on religious grounds, but this case didn’t pursue a religious angle, and I thought it would suffer because of it; however, the appeal to freedom of speech seems to have been convincing. As a result, a much broader precedent has been reached, one that may be replicated in similar court battles. It remains to be seen if Montgomery County will now try to appeal to a Federal court. Nefedro was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland in this case, here’s an excerpt from their press release concerned the decision.

“This case has never been just about fortunetellers, but about the fundamental right to free speech,” said Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “While individual fortunetellers can be punished if they fraudulently exploit their customers, banning all fortunetelling is overbroad and unconstitutional. It is not the role of government to decide that broad categories of speech can be banned merely because it finds them distasteful or disagreeable.”

Here’s hoping lawmakers across the country are paying attention to this decision.

When Will Ali Sibat Be Released? Lebanese citizen Ali Sibat, who was nearly executed for the crime of sorcery in Saudi Arabia but given a last-minute reprieve due to protests and political maneuvering, is still rotting in a cell, and his wife wants to know when he’ll be released.

“The wife of a Lebanese TV psychic convicted in Saudi Arabia on charges of witchcraft appealed for her husband’s release on Friday, just months after he escaped beheading in the kingdom. Samira Rahmoon, 46, said Lebanese officials promised her in April that her husband would soon come home, two years after Saudi religious police arrested him during a pilgrimage there … “We are lost,” said Rahmoon, clutching a cracked frame holding a photograph of her husband, 49-year-old Ali Sibat, during a small protest outside the prime minister’s office in Beirut.”

So far there is no word on when, or if, Sibat will be released from custody. Recently there have been signs that Saudi citizens are getting fed up with power plays by the local religious police, who have been locked in a political struggle with the country’s (relatively) more moderate monarchy. This battle has often seen members of other faiths, even if they are citizens of other countries, drawn into their machinations.

Curses on Trafficking: Benin (not to be confused with the modern day country of the Republic of Benin, formerly known as Dahomey), monarch Omo N’Oba Erediauwa has called on Vodun and other indigenous religious practitioners in Nigeria to place curses on those who would participate in human trafficking and kidnapping.

“The fight against kidnapping and related crimes took a fresh turn in Benin City, the Edo state capital on Thursday, as voodoo priests, herbalists and traditional worshippers came out in large numbers to invoke the wrath of the gods and place curses on persons behind the acts. The Benin monarch Omo N’Oba Erediauwa at a meeting with the traditional stakeholders last week, directed them to set aside this Thursday (yesterday) for the men in the kingdom to place curses on kidnappers, while the women would take their turn to perform the similar exercise tomorrow, Saturday.”

Human trafficking in Nigeria is a rampant problem, with even important officials taking part in the practice. This move by Omo N’Oba Erediauwa is canny since many accounts of have surfaced of Nigerian women and children being threatened into silence and slavery by Vodun curses and vows. If news of this public show of opposition by indigenous religious leaders spreads, it may counter-act some of the power these modern-day slavers hold over their victims.

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

Word has come that Lebanese citizen Ali Sibat will not be executed in Saudi Arabia for the crime of sorcery.  Sibat, who was seized by Saudi Arabia’s religious police in 2008 while returning from the holy city of Mecca, was accused of sorcery and sentenced to death for making televised predictions about the future in Lebanon.

“May al-Khansa told The Associated Press that the Saudi ambassador in Beirut informed the Lebanese justice minister that the execution of Ali Sibat would not take place. “He confirmed to me that there will be no execution,” al-Khansa said about her conversation with Ibrahim Najjar, Lebanon’s justice minister. She refused to go into details but said “matters are going in the right direction. We have faith in Saudi Arabia’s judicial system,” she added, noting that Sibat’s actions are not considered a crime in Lebanon.”

This development comes after ongoing international media attention to Sibat’s case, spurred in part by campaigns from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But what may have ultimately saved Sibat’s life were behind the scenes negotiations between the Saudi and Lebanese governments, spurred by outrage in Lebanon over the situation.

“In Lebanon they have rallied behind Sabat, calling on politicians to take a stronger stance. On Thursday, protesters gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Beirut where they reenacted a mock hanging to protest Sabat’s sentence.”[Saudis] come to our country and literally do whatever they want, thinking that Lebanon is theirs [thanks] to our dear politicians!!” one commenter wrote on a popular online political forum. “What kind of country is Lebanon…. They can’t step in to stop this injustice?” Lebanese Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar told Agence France-Presse that he had asked Saudi authorities to reconsider the severity of the sentence, adding that the same conviction in Lebanon is a misdemeanor punishable by a few months in jail. Though Sabat’s “mother should rest assured” for now, Najjar said…”

What happens next is unknown, but for the moment, we can take some solace in the fact that Sibat has been spared the death penalty, and hope that this means he will soon be reunited with his wife and family.

For my full coverage of this story, including the revelation that there’s a Pagan community in Lebanon, click here.

The Los Angeles Times’ Middle East-focused blog “Babylon & Beyond” has an excellent look at the current situation of Ali Sibat, a Lebanese citizen who was arrested and sentenced to death for the crime of “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia. They not only touch on the political manipulations inside Saudi Arabia that might be fueling this rush to judicial murder, a theme touched on in a previous report by NPR, but also focus on the Lebanese citizens who are outraged at this miscarriage of justice.


The Arabic writing on the banners reads:”Don’t kill.” Credit: Bilal Hussein / AP

“In Lebanon they have rallied behind Sabat, calling on politicians to take a stronger stance. On Thursday, protesters gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Beirut where they reenacted a mock hanging to protest Sabat’s sentence. “[Saudis] come to our country and literally do whatever they want, thinking that Lebanon is theirs [thanks] to our dear politicians!!” one commenter wrote on a popular online political forum.”

In Lebanon the crime of “sorcery” is a misdemeanor, and punishable by, at worst, a couple months in jail. In addition, the report tells us that television psychic call-in shows, such as the one Sibat hosted, are hugely popular in Lebanon, and are broadcast across the Middle East. It was, in fact, Sibat’s television show that led the Mutaween (religious police) in Saudi Arabia to single out and seize him as he was returning from a pilgrimage.

For the moment there is a stay of execution, but there is no clue as to if it is only temporary, or if Sibat’s life will truly be spared. This show of force by conservative factions in Saudi Arabia, and the hesitancy of Lebanese politicians to directly challenge their powerful neighbor place Sibat in a precarious situation. As I pointed out the other day, Saudi Arabia brazenly grabbing pilgrims and sentencing them to death for “sorcery” or “witchcraft” endangers the lives of any who don’t toe the line of Sunni hard-liners, including the small community of modern Pagans and occultists living in Lebanon.

I’ll keep you posted of any developments, in the meantime, I encourage you to read and follow the links at “Babylon & Beyond”. You may also want to catch up on my previous coverage of this case.

I’ll spare all of you the seemingly obligatory April Fools’ Day post, where I pretend I’ve converted to Christianity (or atheism), or run some clearly farcical story where a famous Pagan does something out-of-character. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a well-done joke, it’s just that I like to leave such things to the professionals. Besides, April 1st is not only my lovely wife’s birthday, but our wedding anniversary as well. So I’ll be out for most of today properly celebrating both occasions. So before I head off, let’s do a very quick round-up of some (real) Pagan news.

The Assassination of a Lebanese Citizen, and the Pagans in Lebanon: I’ve written before about Saudi Arabia’s plan to murder a Lebanese citizen, and former television host, for the “crime” of sorcery. After seemingly exhausting all legal appeals to his death sentence, alarming reports went out that Ali Sabat would be executed within a matter of days. Now, the AFP reports that Lebanon’s ambassador to Riyadh says that the execution is not imminent, though Sibat is still on death-row with a pardon being the only thing that could save him.

“Lebanon’s ambassador to Riyadh said Thursday that he had not been informed by the Saudi authorities of the imminent execution of a Lebanese man found guilty of sorcery, as his lawyer has warned. “Until now, the embassy has not been informed” that former TV presenter Ali Sabat has been condemned to death, Ambassador Marwan Zein told AFP by telephone. Sabat’s case is “still being considered by the court,” Zein said.”

Here’s hoping the two nations are doing some diplomatic behind-the-scenes efforts to save Sibat’s life. Sibat’s looming death is troubling, not only for the barbarity of executing innocent men and women for “sorcery” and “witchcraft”, but also because it endangers anyone traveling through the Middle East who doesn’t meet the arbitrary and exacting specifications of the local religious police, including modern Pagans. What’s that? There are no modern Pagans in the Middle East? Well, it seems that there are indeed Pagans in Lebanon. Lebanese blogger Hanibaael explores the phenomenon (in an Arabic-only post, here’s a rough Google translation).

“Pagans didn’t fade away. They are here among us, living by their beliefs in the shadows despite 2000 years of persecution. Here in Lebanon, despite the lack of official legal recognition of anyone who’s not affiliated with the three main religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), they are young people who have taken alternative spiritual paths different from the dominant currents rooted in the general education. They converted to the esoteric and pagan beliefs, on their own, without being preached of it by anyone” (Thanks to Lebanese Pagan Adonis for the improved translation.)

The next head on the chopping block could be a Lebanese Wiccan traveling with her family through Saudi Arabia for The Hajj, just as Ali Sibat once did. Never suspecting he would be arrested for the predictions he made on television. Stopping these witch-hunts around the world isn’t just a humanitarian issue, it also increasingly endangers our faith traditions as modern Paganism emerges as a truly global movement.

Hey You Kids! Get Off My Lawn Sacred Well! It seems that both local Christians and Pagans are concerned about groups of younger Pagans frequenting the famous St. Anthony’s Well in Gloucestershire. What horrible things are these inexperienced Pagans doing? Well, they are apparently making pentagrams from leaves, arranging sticks in patterns, leaving flowers, and making small altars with natural materials!

[High priest Tim] Oakes says it is also among the top 20 pagan water sites in the country and added: “St Anthony’s Well has become a target for what I can only describe as amateur pagans. It is a beautiful sacred place and we deplore any attempts to redecorate it. Our view is that these things should not be there, you should not have these symbols in the middle of a glade. There are a series of books aimed at encouraging teen witches but no reputable coven will accept anybody under 18 so they have nowhere to go. They read these books and go down there armed with a little bit of knowledge to try to get involved.”

How dare these “amateur pagans”! Don’t they know they should wait until they are 18, join a proper coven, and receive training before they ever dare leave flowers at a holy well?!? I’m sorry, but while I can understand the local Christian clergy getting bent out of shape because young Pagans are trouncing about the well, Mr. Oakes sounds like someone who’s peeved because the kids aren’t all bowing to his superior wisdom. If this was some sort of vandalism, the kind that can’t be removed with a broom, I’d be worried, but this is much ado over very little indeed.

Native American Names? Reality television stars Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt have decided to give themselves the “Native American” names of White Wolf and Running Bear, and Native American organizations aren’t amused.

TMZ spoke with a rep from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, who told us, “Continued stereotyping such as this by people ignorant of our traditional ways is very disrespectful and only hurts our efforts to curtail these stereotypes.” The rep claims they’re especially upset because “the names they have given themselves are legitimate names in our tribe.” And they’re not the only ones pissed at the MTV couple … The National Indian Education Association tells us, “they have taken an inaccurate stereotypical approach to enhance their public image which is offensive to our diverse American Indian cultures.”

If Heidi and Spencer White Wolf and Running Bear had decided to take magick Wiccan/Pagan names instead, they could have avoided most of this negative backlash over the issue of cultural appropriation, though it wouldn’t have saved them from rounds of mockery. Though I suppose that generating attention was what this move was all about, so, mission accomplished?

Call For Writers: In a final note, the The Pagan Newswire Collective is seeking writers for two new topic-focused group-blog projects. Just as the PNC’s new Pagan+Politics site aims to give a Pagan voice to our  political discourse, so too will these new projects help provide a vital Pagan perspective in their respective subject areas.

Pagans in the Military Group-Blog Project:

The PNC is looking for 7-10 Pagans interested in joining a group blog concerning Pagans in the military. We are hoping to encompass a wide range of news, opinions, and perspectives, and we want to not only include active-duty military personnel and military veterans, but  military spouses and activists involved in working to advance the equal treatment of Pagans in the armed forces. All political perspectives welcome.

Requirements: We prefer all participants be able to contribute at least one post per week. However, we are willing to make exceptions for active-duty military personnel who are stationed overseas. Writing and journalism experience is a plus, but we are also willing to take on dedicated beginners who can demonstrate they know their way around a sentence.

Pagan Pop-Culture/Arts Group-Blog Project:

The PNC is looking for 7-10 Pagans interested in joining a group blog concerning Pagan opinions on pop-culture and the arts, both mainstream and Pagan-created. Movies, books, comics, art, games, music, theater, and dance, we want to cover it all!

Requirements: Participants should be able to contribute at least one post per week (more is even better). A history of writing arts-oriented reviews is a big plus, as is demonstrating a breadth of knowledge about pop-culture and the arts.  Having a specialty is fine, and even encouraged! Remember we are looking for specifically Pagan reactions to, and analysis of, these creative fields.

To apply for either project send an e-mail with your name, contact information, location, and writing samples to projects at pagannewswirecollective dot com.

That’s all I have for now, have a great (April Fools’) day.

As Lebanese citizen, and former television host, Ali Hussain Sibat gets closer to seeing his death sentence for “sorcery” in Saudi Arabia carried out, human rights group Amnesty International joins the chorus of voices calling for King Abdullah to grant him clemency and save his life.

“Amnesty International has called on the King of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution of a Lebanese national, whose death sentence for charges relating to “sorcery” was upheld by a court last week. If the higher courts reject his appeal, ‘Ali Hussain Sibat, a former television presenter for a Lebanese satellite TV station, who gave advice and predictions about the future, could be executed at any time.”

Amnesty International joins Human Rights Watch in calling for Sibat’s release as he sees his final appeals for mercy to Saudi Arabia’s judicial system fall on deaf ears.

“…on March 10, a court in Madina upheld the death sentence. The judges said that he deserved to be sentenced to death because he had practised “sorcery” publicly for several years before millions of viewers and that his actions “made him an infidel”. The court said also that there would be no way to verify that his repentance, if he should repent, would be sincere and that imposing the death sentence would deter other people from engaging in “sorcery” at a time when, the court said, there is an increase in the number of “foreign magicians” entering Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia is unique in the international epidemic of witch-hunts, as its persecutions and deaths seem unambiguously backed by a powerful government, and can’t be explained away as mere superstition or the product of corrupt “bad apple” religious leaders. While the country is currently enacting reforms of its judicial system, it has no codified legal system, and no protections against self-incrimination or forced confession. The Mutaween (religious police) in Saudi Arabia have seemingly run amok, and this recent increase in “sorcery” and “witchcraft”  arrests may be a reaction to the government trying to curb their influence. Which calls into question how much power King Abdullah actually holds over the Mutaween, and if he currently has the political clout to end this barbarity.

What is clear is that Sibat is running out of time, while the realpolitik of America’s current Middle Eastern policy silences our leaders from alienating one of our few powerful allies in that region. This case is important, not because Sibat is “one of us”, but because we shouldn’t tolerate having normal diplomatic relations with any country whose government allows for the killing of “witches” and “sorcerers”. Who brazenly seizes citizens of other countries for these alleged crimes, and whose leadership seems content to allow a theocratic goon-squad to roam freely and terrorize the populace.

A Few Quick Notes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 6, 2010 — 3 Comments

Just a few quick items I wanted to share with you today, starting with a post from my favorite Christian blog, Slacktivist, who tackles the sad case of Ali Sibat’s death sentence in Saudi Arabia, and the sensationalist “500 dead animals” Santeria story from Philadelphia in one fell swoop.

“The Supreme Court of the U.S. did not rule that the free exercise of Santeria is “permitted.” It ruled, unambiguously (9-0), that the free exercise of Santeria is protected. This is not a minor distinction. People like Sally Kern — or like Chuck Colson and Robert George and everybody they got to endorse their “Manhattan Declaration” — like to think that their particular religion is protected by the First Amendment while other, less widely held religions are merely “permitted,” merely tolerated out of a benign condescension. But the First Amendment does not make or allow for any such distinction. If it did, then America would require a Saudi-style “religious police” to enforce laws dependent on the content of religious beliefs. A legal category of “heretical, but permitted” could not long exist without realizing the implied additional legal category of “heretical and prohibited,” and neither category is compatible with religious freedom. It is not possible to make legal judgments regarding the content of religious belief without enforcing laws against heresy. And it is not possible to enact and enforce laws against heresy without religious tyranny.”

For those curious about what that “Manhattan Declaration” is that he mentioned, you can find the text of it, here. You can read Slacktivist’s opinion of that declaration, here. While I’m not too surprised to see a Christian blog report on the Sibat case, I’m pleasantly surprised to see one address the Santeria story. Kudos to Fred Clark for addressing the fact that religious freedom means freedom for all religions, not just the ones that are “Judeo-Christian”.

The Smoky Mountain News in North Carolina takes an exhaustive look at the various viewpoints on the matter of public religious invocations before government meetings. Interviewing Christians, atheists, politicians, lawyers, and even Pagans, in the process.

“Lianna Constantino, high priestess of the Sylva Hearth Pagan Temple, said prayers that specifically reference Jesus Christ in Haywood, Swain and Macon counties persist simply because the practice has never been challenged. In her opinion, holding any one group above another promotes an atmosphere of intolerance. In Constantino’s view, it will take a long time for major change, somewhat due to the makeup of WNC society. “There hasn’t been a lot of diversity like there has been in other parts of the country,” said Constantino. “As a simple fact, this is a pretty homogenous Christian-entrenched society in the South.” … Constantino, high priestess of the Sylva Hearth Pagan Temple, said endorsing Christian prayers before meetings blatantly violates a precious partition between religion and state. “I think it is rude, arrogant and presumptuous to impose any singular religious tradition on a religiously diverse society,” said Constantino.”

The article was prompted by recent successful legal challenges in Forsyth County that ended sectarian prayer before governmental meetings. Now a group of North Carolina counties (Haywood, Macon and Swain) wonder when they’ll be called to court for excluding religious minorities, or making public sectarian invocations. The answer is most likely “eventually”, as religious minorities (and atheists) grow and decide they’ve had enough of a governmental endorsement of Christianity masquerading as “religious freedom”.

In a final note, the Guardian music blog spotlights “Pagan Metal: A Documentary”, a film I’ve mentioned here before.

“The result is a new film, Pagan Metal: A Documentary, that features interviews with some of the scene’s big players, including Finnish bands, Finntroll, Korpiklaani and Turisas, as well as Norway’s Leaves Eyes and Ireland’s Primordial. Their dedication to ancient traditions doesn’t quite go as far as carving guitars out of birch and stringing them with the entrails of wild boar, but alongside your typical metal set-up, traditional instruments, such as violins, flutes and Celtic bagpipes, are rife. Lyrics, meanwhile, are steeped in traditional, pre-Christian themes: Finntroll, for instance, draw inspiration from from the epic Finnish poem The Kalevala.”

The post chronicles how film producer Bill Zebub was initially quite skeptical of the genre, but was won over by the “vibe” which called out to “the European” within him. They also tackle how some bands veer into racism and nationalism, though they do add that there is less extremism and sensationalism on the whole than within the more-popular Black Metal genre (a genre that also has a documentary about it coming out).

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

Top Story: I’m very pleased to present, as part of my coverage of the Pagan presence at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, an interview with Pagan scholar Michael York. Michael York is Professor of Cultural Astronomy and Astrology at Bath Spa University College, UK, an instructor at Cherry Hill Seminary, and author of “Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion”. We discussed the evolving place of modern Paganism at the Parliament, the importance of the Pagan voice in interfaith interactions, and how polytheism promotes democracy.

If you are a Pagan podcaster, or host a Pagan-friendly radio show, you are welcome to download this file to play on your program. Be sure to credit the Pagan Newswire Collective as the audio source. For more Parliament-related audio, check out my discussion with Ed Hubbard, a PNC correspondent, as well as host of MagickTV and Pagans Tonight. There are more scheduled Parliament interviews, so stay tuned to the Pagans at the Parliament blog for the latest news.

In Other News: William Booth at the Washington Post looks at the oft-misunderstood cult of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death. An anthropologist interviewed for the piece makes the argument that this growing, and controversial, faith is a true reflection of contemporary Mexico.

“The authorities have condemned Santa Muerte as a “narco-saint,” worshipped by drug traffickers, cartel assassins and dope slingers. But the worship is more a reflection of contemporary Mexico, says the anthropologist J. Katia Perdigón Castañeda, the author of “La Santa Muerte: Protector of Mankind.” The cult is an urban pop amalgam, New Age meets heavy metal meets Virgin of Guadalupe. It is no accident that it is also cross-cultural — that the centers of worship are the poor, proud heart of Mexico City and the violent frontier lands of Laredo, Juarez and Tijuana. The cult borrows equally from Hollywood and the Aztec underworld. Altars, necklaces and tattoos honoring Santa Muerte also make appearances in Mexican American neighborhoods from Los Angeles to Boston. “The believers may be drug dealers, doctors, carpenters, housewives. The cult accepts all. No matter the social status or age or sexual preference. Even transsexuals. Even criminals. That’s very important, that the cult of Santa Muerte accepts everyone,” Perdigón told me, “because death takes one and all.” Where mainstream Mexican Catholicism promises a better life in the hereafter, “central to the devotion of Santa Muerte is the fact that the believers want a miracle, a favor, in the present, in this life, not when they are dead,” Perdigón said.”

I find it very interesting that while many modern Pagan religions are quite self-conscious of mixing pop-culture with our Paganism, or of modernizing ancient sacred imagery, the followers of Santa Muerte seem to do it instinctively. Focusing more on necessities than proprieties. I wish I could read J. Katia Perdigon Castaneda’s book, but it appears to be only available in Spanish, a language I have not mastered.

I have an update on the case of Ali Sibat, a former Lebanese television presenter who was arrested and sentenced to death for sorcery in Saudi Arabia by the Mutaween (religious police) in Saudi Arabia, but I’m afraid it isn’t good news.

“He was condemned to death last month, and the religious court may confirm the sentence as soon as Thursday. The family’s lawyer, May Khansa, has tried desperately to persuade Lebanese politicians to intervene to save Mr Sbatt’s life – the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, and President Michel Sleiman are aware of his case and so is the Sunni Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Amir Qabalan – but so far without success. Sheikh Qabalan did, however, say that what Mr Sbatt did on television was merely psychological help for people who have lost hope and did not involve black magic. The family wisely appealed to Sunni prelates for help rather than dignitaries from their own Shia background. Their local member of parliament has been asked to assist – uselessly, it appears – and Ibrahim Najjar, the Minister for Justice, has said he has done “the necessary”, whatever that is.”

Saudi lawyers have asked for a million dollars to make a legal appeal, and it seems only the intervention of King Abdullah could save his life at this point. I’ll have more on this case as it develops, but it looks like another innocent person will soon be killed by a government for alleged supernatural crimes.

Why do white supremacists feel the need to subvert Pagan, Heathen, and Christian faiths? Because their own sad attempts at building a “religion” are so transparently political that federal district court judges have no problem denying them equal treatment in court cases.

“In Conner v. Tilton, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111892 (ND CA, Dec. 2, 2009), in a decision unusually detailed in its analysis for a case brought by a prisoner pro se, a California federal district court held that the White supremacist Creativity Movement is not a “religion” for purposes of the First Amendment or RLUIPA. In the case, an inmate sought the right to practice various aspects of his purported religion in Pelican Bay State Prison. In deciding the case, the court relied on the definition of “religion” articulated by the 3rd Circuit in Africa v. Pennsylvania.”

In short,”what’s good for white people is good” just isn’t a comprehensive world-view that addresses “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters”. There may be (and are) racist Heathens, Pagans, Muslims, and Christians, but they at least have the fig-leaf of an actual faith-tradition when considering legal matters. This sadly means that racists will continue to distort our faiths for their own ends, but at least the misguided may have some chance of interacting with genuine non-racist permutations of those faiths as they move through life.

In a final note, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, who has been covering the plight of child witches in Nigeria, brings us the news that notorious (and popular) witch-hunting mega-pastor Helen Ukpabio is suing a local activist and witch children charity. Why is she suing them? For making Ukpabio look bad when her followers raided a conference on Witchcraft and Child Rights.

“Helen applied to the Federal High Court in Calabar for the enforcement of her fundamental rights. She claimed, among other things,that the conference on Witchcraft and Child Rights, held on July 29 in Calabar – which her members disrupted- and the arrest of her church members on the said date constituted an infringement on their rights to practice their christian religious belief relating to witchcraft. She asked the court to issue perpetual injunctions restraining me and others – From interfering with their practice of christianity and their deliverance of people with witchcraft spirit … From holding seminars or workshops denouncing the christian religious belief in witchcraft … From arresting her and her church members etc.”

The activist, Leo Igwe, has sent out a press release regarding the lawsuit. Due to oppressive British libel laws, Bartholomew wasn’t able to reprint the entire thing, so I’m making it available here. I’ll try to keep you posted as new developments in this case arise, but I strongly suggest you also read Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion for the latest updates as well.

That’s all I have for now, don’t forget to check the Pagans at the Parliament blog for the latest updates and links from Melbourne,  and have a great day!

Human rights groups have known for some time that the Mutaween (religious police) in Saudi Arabia has run amok. Operating with near impunity thanks to backing from the government, with special squads dedicated solely to rooting out “witchcraft and sorcery”, they roam Saudi Arabia looking for any hint of theological impropriety. Little can be done, because the country is virtually immune from outside pressures thanks to the policy of Realpolitik, which tells world leaders that oil and a strategic ally in the Middle East are more important than justice or human rights. A reality that condemns women like Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali, and others like her, to certain death. Now this sad state of affairs has made international headlines once again, as a Lebanese television presenter who made predictions about the future, and was arrested last year while on pilgrimage, has been sentenced to death for the crime of witchcraft.

“Ali Sibat’s death sentence apparently resulted from advice and predictions he gave on Lebanese television. According to Saudi media, in addition to Sibat, Saudi religious police have arrested at least two others for witchcraft in the past month alone. “Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The crime of ‘witchcraft’ is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions.” Religious police arrested Ali Sibat in his hotel room in Medina on May 7, 2008, where he was on pilgrimage before returning to his native Lebanon. Before his arrest, Sibat frequently gave advice on general life questions and predictions about the future on the Lebanese satellite television station Sheherazade, according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar and the French newspaper Le Monde. These appearances are said to be the only evidence against Sibat.”

Human Rights Watch also notes that Saudi Arabia has no codified penal code, with individual judges deciding what is and isn’t proper evidence for “witchcraft” and “sorcery”.  Critics of this farce of a legal system are told that they have a “preconceived Western notion of shari’a” and ignored. Saudi Arabia is unique in the international epidemic of witch-hunts, as its persecutions and deaths are unambiguously backed by powerful government, and can’t be explained away as mere superstition or the product of corrupt “bad apple” religious leaders.

So what can be done? We can demand that governments start taking off the kid gloves with Saudi Arabia, no matter how friendly they’ve been with us in the past. We can also continue the work of raising the concerns of modern Pagans on this issue to the world stage, and with priestess, author, and attorney, Phyllis Curott (who has fought valiantly on behalf of Fawza Falih Muhammad) now on the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (along with two other Pagans) I feel that this process is well underway. Until then, we can pray and work for the innocent “witches and sorcerers” held and threatened with death for possessing the wrong books, believing the wrong things, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.