Archives For SAPRA

Nearly daily there are news reports on abuses inflicted on people who have been accused of witchcraft. Just today the Zambia Daily Mail reported that a man was killed and another beaten over such accusations. These horrifying cases occur all over the world with a concentration in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Nepal.

In most of these attacks, the victims are not Pagans or Witches in a western sense and are not likely practicing any form of witchcraft. The accusations are simply used as weapon against the unwanted who are more often than not women. Fortunately with the continued growth of the international women’s movement, these acts of violence are becoming the subject of real concern and decisive action.

Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01

Women in Nepal. Video Still. ©Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank SB-NP01

Today we can report that Nepal, the country with the highest concentration of attacks, has taken some concrete steps to curb and, hopefully end, witchcraft-related violence. According to the Republica:

The government is working to finalize a draft of the ´Witchcraft Act (Charge and Punishment) 2014 to take stringent action against those involved in the inhuman treatment of females accused of practicing witchcraft. 

The new Witchcraft Act was prepared by Nepal’s Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare (MoWCSW), a federal department dedicated to the legal protection that particular segment of the population. On its website, the Department states:

Its mandate is to empower women especially those who are economically poor … socially deprived or at a disadvantage.

The most recent draft of the Witchcraft Act states that the accuser can be fined up to 1,050 USD and given up to a ten-year jail sentence.  According to the Republica, the act makes it clear that “torturing women through thrashing, slandering, smearing them with black soot, pouring acid on them or forcibly feeding them feces, on the charge of witchcraft, will be considered a crime.”

This is the first time that the Nepalese government has legislated the meaning of the term witchcraft. While that definition may be a far cry from that found in the U.S. or Europe, the effort will potentially alleviate some of problems and, thereby, open opportunities for more progressive and aggressive work towards eradicating the problem.

A good example is South Africa which has had a Witchcraft Suppression Act since 1957, later revised in 1970. According to this law, accusations of witchcraft carry with them a fine of over 30,000 USD and up to ten years in prison. While the law has certainly not stopped the problem, it has provided a legal grounding that serves to elevate the conversation within the country. Today South Africa has an active Pagan organization, South African Pagan Right’s Alliance, that can openly fight against these senseless accusations as well as work with government officials towards a legal dissection of the modern meanings of witchcraft.

Nepal hasn’t reached that point in the process. Like the original South African law, the new Nepal law makes the accusations illegal but also fails to specifically recognize or allow for Witchcraft as a legitimate magical practice found within folk religious traditions or modern Paganisms. According to the Republica, the new Act will permit police investigations of those legally accused of witchcraft.

As with many of the areas that suffer from witchcraft-related violence, Nepal’s problem is grounded in deeply-rooted cultural beliefs. As reported by the Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN), the “belief in witchcraft” is embedded in the country’s “strong animistic and shamanic tradition.” Nepalese Shamans work with the spirit world to heal and assist the living but bokshi or “witches” are considered detrimental influences who only can bring harm to society.

The report also cites the problematic influence of the so-called Witch Doctor who often holds a good deal of power over a village. For the right price, these men will perform spiritual investigations to locate the source of a bewitchment. Their accusations are often guided by the whims of their clientele and not a concern for the general well-being of the population. (WHRIN 2014 Country Report: Nepal)

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Currently there are multiple organizations in Nepal fighting to protect women from the horrors of witchcraft-related abuse. One of these organizations is The Woman’s Foundation of Nepal founded in 1988 by a group of concerned female college students. While its mission is to help Nepalese women in general, the organization is an active participant in the fight against witchcraft-related violence. Its website states:

Often widows in Nepal are termed “bokshi”, or witches, and are subject to extreme abuse and discrimination. Many of the victims have led very difficult lives, and once accused of being a ‘bokshi’, are beaten, tortured, or forced to commit degrading acts such as eating human waste, or the meat of other humans … In cases where women are being abused for “practicing witchcraft,” WFN directly supports the victims by removing them from that dangerous situation, treating them medically if necessary, and supporting them legally to file a case against their accusers.

The Forum for Protection of People’s Rights, Nepal (PPR Nepal) is another similar organization who worked closely with WHRIN to produced the 2014 Nepal country report. PPR Nepal says, “The magnitude of gender-based violence in Nepal is extremely high. Among the various forms of violence, witchcraft related violence especially against unprivileged women e.g. widow, poor, helpless is widespread in the country.”

As with other countries experiencing high levels of witchcraft-related violence, Nepal continues to struggle with extreme poverty, lack of education and sub-standard medical care. Advocacy organizations are not blind to the bigger problem within that bigger framework. Therefore their work often incorporates education, medical treatment and job placement.

With the new Witchcraft Act in place, the NGO advocacy groups and the Ministry will have another tool in their pocket to support their work. While the law is certainly not a panacea, it does provide the legal fuel needed in their fight to protect the rights and health of the women of Nepal. Over time, this Act and others like it may lead to opportunities for inter-cultural work and inter-religious education that will grow a better global understanding of the many meanings of Witchcraft.

 

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

On April 6 South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) held a 35th anniversary event to commemorate the death of freedom fighter Solomon Malanghu. Several national politicians spoke including President Jacob Zuma. The event turned “surreal,” as described by The Cape Times, when the National Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula labeled opposition party members “witches.”

The ANC is currently the controlling party of South Africa’s national government. However the country’s provinces are independently run. While the ANC maintains control over most of these provinces, its opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is the controlling force in the West Cape. The two parties regularly engage in heated political debates, street conflicts, marches and rallies.

Minister Mbalula at CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014 [Photo Credit: Government ZA Flickr]

Minister Mbalula at CHAN 2014 media briefing, 16 Jan 2014 [Photo Credit: GCIS]

The anniversary event was held in a community center in the township of Nyanga in Cape Town which is located in the DA-controlled West Cape. Speaking to ANC supporters, Minister Mbalula took a direct shot at the opposing party when he said:

This thing of witchcraft is when a witch does nothing for the people but they still get re-elected. This is what we find ourselves in here in the Western Cape. We are being governed by witches. (As quoted by The Cape Times)

Later in the speech Mbalula adds:

These witches are oppressing us, they are trampling on us. Where are the tokoloshes and the (sangomas) so that we can chase these witches away? It is witchcraft to let people live with feces inside their own homes and have no proper toilets. This is the same province where farmworkers are not paid with money but in the dop system … It is the same place where our people are called refugees. What do you call that? Witchcraft … (as quoted in the Citizen Daily)

Witchcraft accusations are a serious business in sub-Sahara Africa. As described in this Daily news report, a lost grandmother can be accused of witchcraft and consequently in danger of being physically assaulted. Through his words Mbalula called up a deep-seated cultural fear surrounding occult practice.

In the weeks prior to Mbalula’s speech, the DA had publicly challenged President’s Zuma’s fiscal policies and accused him of corruption. In response the ANC demanded a legal retraction. Mbalula’s witchcraft accusations may have been a direct response to the DA’s claims.  All of this is happening only a month prior to general elections.

As explained in an opinion piece published by mainstream media site eNCA, a South African 24 hour television news station:

The ruling party seems to have deployed the Minister of Sports and Recreation to bring inflammatory and incendiary ideas and practices from the fringes into mainstream political debate… This was a role played by the party’s Youth League leaders not so long ago: making statements so provocative that the party elite could maintain a safe distance from any fallout yet benefit without necessarily disavowing or disciplining the errant figures. 

Mbalula’s speech may not have been completely a party play. He has a history of publicly lashing out. In a recent interview he called the South African media “losers” for criticizing his plans to shape South African athletics. In a tweet he likened his dreams to that of Hitler’s.

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When soccer fans booed President Zuma, Mbalula called these fans “wolves and hooligans” whose “plans, infused in Satanism at best, will never succeed in the future because their plans are nothing else but filled with evil.”

Minister Mbalula appears to have a propensity for using inflammatory language. However in the case of his witchcraft accusations, the words are more than just offensive.They are illegal as defined in the Witchcraft Supression Act of 1957 & 1970. Making this point is South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) director Damon Leff,

We remind the Minister and the ANC provincial secretary that according to Act 3 of 1957, accusations of witchcraft are punishable by a fine of up to R400,000 or imprisonment for up to 10 years. Accusations of witchcraft amount to incitement to violence in South Africa. ANC members therefore contravene the electoral act by inciting violence (as quoted in the Citizen Daily)

Leff was interviewed about this subject by Talk Radio Host Kieno Kammies:


SAPRA has called on the ANC and the national government to apologize and condemn the ongoing, dangerous witch accusations. Since this call-to-action there has been no response from either party.  

These recent political events happen to coincide with SAPRA’s yearly “30 Days of Advocacy” campaign to raise awareness for and end the notorious witch-hunts in the country. SAPRA and other similar organizations have been regularly engaged in a cultural struggle and daily conversation with media, law enforcement and government.

30daysIn early 2014 the South African Police Occult Crime Unit revealed that “occult” related crimes were rising. In reaction:

[Unit] investigators [will be] doing awareness workshops that are being presented at various schools, churches, police stations …  A network of prayer groups from different church denominations where establish to assist with the problems.

In a press release SAPRA noted that the Unit has designated the warning signs of Occult “dabblers” as:

Personality changes including rebelliousness, boredom, low self-worthiness, difficulty relating to peers, a change in friends, secretiveness, a drop in academic performance, loss of interest in extra-curricular activities, avoidance of their family, drug and alcohol use, and withdrawal from their family religious heritage and a lack of church attendance … an unusual interest in books, films and videos with an occult theme…body markings, including the Pentagram 

In February SAPRA protested by lodging “a formal charge of hate speech against the SAPS Occult Crime Unit and its members, with the Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, and the South African Human Rights Commission.”

Fortunately all of SAPRA’s work isn’t defensive. Just today Leff announced that SAPRA is being consulted in the amending of the country’s Witchcraft Suppression Act. The final paper will be submitted directly to the Law Reform Commission by May 30. It is SAPRA’s hope that the Commission will make some distinctions in Witchcraft practices that will support South African Pagans and curb the destructive witch-hunts.

In the meantime charges of witchcraft continue even at the highest level of public politics. The eNCA’s opinion piece concludes:

We can ill afford to either tolerate or entrench vilifying political speechifying which deploys tropes designed to provoke communities into moral panics. In March it was Satanism; in April it was witchcraft. What will May bring? …As for the appropriateness of calling people witches at a memorial for Solomon Mahlangu, one recalls the words of Joseph Welch from the United States’ anti-communist ‘witch-hunts’ during the 1950s: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?

While SAPRA will continue to wait for an apology from Mbalula and the ANC, it is not expecting to receive one.  The organization will be focusing its energy on the Commission’s reform work. A full article and update on that effort will be published in Penton Media’s Minority Review blog near the end of April.

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.

Indonesian politician Permadi, photo by Edi Wiyono.

Indonesian politician Permadi, photo by Edi Wiyono.

William Blake, The Whore of Babylon, 1809, Pen and black ink and water colours, 266 x 223 mm, © The Trustees of the British Museum

William Blake, The Whore of Babylon, 1809, Pen and black ink and water colours, 266 x 223 mm, © The Trustees of the British Museum

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.

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.

Robin Hood's Grave. Photo: Nigel Homer, CC

Robin Hood’s Grave. Photo: Nigel Homer, CC

  • What’s it like being a Pagan in Wyoming? Pretty hard, apparently, as locals attending a Pagan Pride Day event in Laramie discuss being closeted and how “people are not so nice here.” Quote: “They’re closeted,” said Jo-Ann Aelfwine of Laramie, who has been practicing paganism for 50 years. Wyoming is a conservative state, and people aren’t always open to differences, Aelfwine said. “We have to worry about things like losing your job, having your kids taken away from you,” she said.”
  • The Kirklees estate in West Yorkshire, believed to be the final resting place of the legendary Robin Hood, is up for sale and the British Psychic and Occult Society want to turn it into a tourist destination. Quote: [David Farrant, president of the British Psychic and Occult Society said] “The special place the tomb holds in the hearts of many local people is heartened by tales of ghostly sightings and chilling experiences from those who have made the pilgrimage to the grave, defying the vicious brambles, dense canopies of twisted trees, and watchful gamekeepers and guard dogs.” Personally, I think the legend of Robin Hood deserves more dignity than to be turned into some sort of ghost-walk, but what do I know? Maybe this will be a positive thing.
  • The Senate heard testimony on domestic hate crimes this week, a move that comes in the wake of the Wisconsin Sikh temple massacre from August. Testimony focused on how violence and hate crimes committed against Sikhs have gone unnoticed and un-tracked by the government. Quote:  “I have filmed, chronicled, combated hate crimes against this community for 11 years,” Valerie Kaur, a Sikh filmmaker and community activist, said in testimony at the hearing. “In the aftermath of Oak Creek, reporters came up to me and asked me, ‘How many hate crimes have there been? How many hate murders have there been?’ ” Kaur said. “And I couldn’t tell them … because the government currently does not track hate crimes against Sikhs at all.” You can read more about the inciting incident, and Pagan reactions to it, here.
  • Will Witches replace vampires and zombies? Maybe!
  • South African Pagans are challenging plans by the South African Police Service to start training specialists in “occult-related crimes” saying they could lead to religious minorities to be targeted by those looking for a scapegoat. Quote from the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA):  “This newly envisioned scope of investigation must be viewed with suspicion and be of concern to anyone engaged in the practice of Witchcraft, Traditional African religion, and other Occult spiritualities (including Satanism). Given the already evident bias expressed by ex-members of ORC and new members of provincial Religious Crimes Units against Witchcraft, SAPRA believes the new mandate potentially threatens religious minorities who may be scapegoated on the basis of belief alone.” Considering how “occult experts” have been used to smear occult and Pagan traditions in other countries, I think their skepticism and worry are well founded.

  • Check out a new Pagan-y (and human-sacrifice-y) video from Swedish folk act First Aid Kit. “Wolf” is off of their new album The Lion’s Roar.
  • Fashion house Paul Frank shows you how to respond after you’ve been accused of offensively appropriating Native and indigenous imagery. Quote: “It is embarrassing to reveal that, say, you don’t employ anyone who might have the perspective to point out to you that a “pow-wow” is not an okay thing to do, or that a news organization airs information it found on Google without verifying it. But cauterizing those wounds and explaining how you’ve worked backwards to make sure you don’t make the errors again is a short-term pain it’s worth enduring.”
  • The Gary Johnson campaign seemed to have enjoyed my piece about them yesterday. Quote: “Thanks to Cara Schulz for help organizing and promoting tomorrow’s event. This isn’t the first time Ms. Schulz has helped the campaign. Last year she help put together a press conference with the governor and lesser-known religionists and non-religionists. She truly is the type of individual thinker for which the campaign wishes to provide a Big Tent. Here’s the story of the “pagan” vote.” 
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry: Satan’s nemesis!
  • John Morehead deconstructs hater Janet Mefferd. Quote: “…we live in a post-Christendom America. Surveys indicate that while Evangelicalism is still numerically large and influential, it has lost ground, both in terms of membership, and in terms of credibility within among young people, and on the outside as well, where both groups see it as judgmental and oppressive. Engaging others in a post-Christendom environment means that we can no longer assume either a monoculture, or a pluralistic culture with non-Christians who will sit quietly on the sidelines while hope to exclude them and describe them as a toxic fume creeping under the door of America’s political process.” More on Mefferd, here.
  • Hey, it’s September 21st, where’s Jason post about the Fall Equinox? Check your nearest observatory, it’s not till tomorrow!

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.

Pagan voices is a new spotlight on recent quotations from figures within the Pagan community. These voices may appear in the burgeoning Pagan media, or from a mainstream outlet, but all showcase our wisdom, thought processes, and evolution  in the public eye. Is there a Pagan voice you’d like to see highlighted? Drop me a line with a link to the story, post, or audio.

“Covered in Light is a Sisterhood of Pagan/Polytheist self-identified women who have chosen, or are called, to cover their hair as part of their religious observance. In no way are we oppressed, objectified, suppressed, or made to feel like a second class citizen. The covering of our hair is a sacred act of devotion to our chosen Deities and therefore is approached with devotion and reverence. We welcome all women from all walks of life to join our Sisterhood if they feel led to do so. Trans-women and women of other faiths who are Pagan/Polytheist friendly and who embrace the Divine Mother are also welcome amongst us with open arms.”Cora Post, from Covered In Light. They are sponsoring the First Annual International Covered in Light Day on September 21st, 2012.

Michael Lloyd

Michael Lloyd

“It is important to recognize that most large gatherings which are billed as “national” events generally pull the bulk of their attendees from the region in which the event is being held. And there is anecdotal evidence to show that, when such a gathering is moved farther afield due to a necessary change in venue, the area from which attendees are drawn likewise tends to shift to focus on the new geographic center. When Julian Hill and I created the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering in 2002, we initially foresaw it as a regional gathering for gay and bi men residing within a 500 mile radius of Columbus, Ohio. However, in the first year we had attracted someone from Texas, and inquiries from as far afield as Mexico and France. By the second year we had people attend from as far away as Washington State. After 10 years we’ve pulled people from Hawaii, as well as from Ontario and Manitoba, Canada. And yet the bulk of the attendees have remained within the 500 mile radius that we had initially targeted. This is due primarily to the economics and practicality of transporting camping gear, ritual accoutrements, and fabulous costumes cross-country. Therefore, I believe that most events–even those with large draws from farther afield–are already essentially regional in nature.” – Michael Lloyd, a co-founder and former co-facilitator (2002-2011) of the Between the Worlds Men’s Gathering, an annual spiritual retreat for men who love men. He’s author of the forthcoming book “Bull of Heaven: The Mythic Life and Times of Eddie Buczynski.” Lloyd was responding to a series on the Talking About Ritual Magick blog that asked if Pagan festivals are doomed to an inevitable decline.

Aidan Kelly in younger days.

Aidan Kelly in younger days.

“However, there is more to the Craft than just being a newly respectable religion for middle-class intellectuals. Tell me, you initiates, did you come to the Craft in order to supposedly work magic by reading a script? In order to take a politically correct attitude toward ecology and the environment? Or were you lured in by the Goddess, by the archetype of Aradia as the rebel against corruption and oppression? Or did you find the Craft because you were sick of being lied to by the established churches? If your primary allegiance is to searching out truth, as mine is, then you are a sixth type of Witch, for which there is not yet an established term.” – Aidan Kelly, exploring “What is a Witch?”

Frater Barrabbas (left) with fellow magician Tony Mierzwicki.

Frater Barrabbas (left) with fellow magician Tony Mierzwicki.

“Large regional festivals and conventions probably face a limited future, and will not be likely to persist in the decades ahead, what with the impact of limited resources and the necessity to adapt to changing times. Large gatherings may be more likely to occur once a decade, if at all. Local organizations and events are much more sustainable and these will likely persist and flourish in the future. Yet the most profound kind of gathering will be the intensive retreat, called Witch Camp by some, and perhaps spawning many variations in the future, each established for different regional areas and different traditions, practices and beliefs. It is my opinion that the future of our spiritual movement will be shaped not by social gatherings or even by individual groups or covens, but by intensive retreats that will give a level of spiritual authenticity to our beliefs and practices which normal activities and engagements fail to offer.” - Frater Barrabbas, “Are Pagan Festivals Dead? – Part 3″

“The [Witchcraft Suppression] Act makes possessing knowledge, or professing to possess knowledge of ‘witchcraft’ illegal, and by its title, seeks to suppress witchcraft. It also prohibits divination, a practice shared by both traditional healers who identify as iZangoma, and Pagans who identify as witches. [...]  Traditional beliefs do not assume that a witch may be innocent of such accusation because it is believed that such criminal acts are in keeping with the nature of the practice of Witchcraft. The alliance has advocated against witch hunts and accusations of witchcraft since 2007. Our annual campaign focuses on research, advocacy and education. We believe that accusations of witchcraft cannot be legislated away.” - Damon Leff, director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliances (SAPRA), speaking to The Citizen on South Africa’s Witchcraft Suppression Act.

Iris Firemoon with David Salisbury

Iris Firemoon with David Salisbury

“Obesity in the Pagan community is a part of the larger issue of health.  And health is not just about weight.  It is about treating our bodies as sacred.  It’s about what we put into our bodies and making sure that they are in the best condition possible for the long haul.  It’s about putting things into our bodies that were created by nature or the gods, not by putting synthetic replicas into our bodies as a substitute. It’s something that not only Pagans struggle with, but health is a consideration for all humans.  When we are at the height of our possible health (which is different for all of us because of genetics, injury, etc.), we improve the quality of our life.  We reduce disease.  We prolong life.  We feel better for longer.  I strongly believe that our bodies respond better to invasions and prevent disease when they are in optimal condition.  We are better vessls for divine work.  We are better able to serve.  We are better able to participate.”Iris Firemoon, responding to a conversation started by Peter Dybing on obesity within the modern Pagan movement.

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe)

“We have started the NPCCA [National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association] as an affiliate program, a product of our existing organization, Mill Creek Seminary, and have just begun the first in a three phase development plan. Phase one will focus on membership development and organizational growth. We are proud to announce that the NPCCA is now accepting applications for membership from Pagans who actively engage in prison ministry, provide some form of religious service within the field of corrections, or have a strong religious organizations which have a prison ministry program  or who are interested in participating, contributing or supporting Pagan chaplaincy.”Joseph Merlin Nichter (aka WitchDoctorJoe), on the formation of the National Pagan Correctional Chaplains Association.

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

Happy May Day everyone! Pagan Community Notes is a series focused on news originating from within the Pagan community. Reinforcing the idea that what happens to and within our organizations, groups, and events is news, and news-worthy. My hope is that more individuals, especially those working within Pagan organizations, get into the habit of sharing their news with the world. So lets get started!

Sacred Paths Center Announces Closure: Sacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center serving the Minneapolis/St. Paul area (aka “Paganistan”), sent out an email today announcing their imminent closure. Executive Director Teisha Magee cited a lack of money, resources, and volunteers as reasons for this decision.

“After much heartache, soul-searching and tears, it has become clear that Sacred Paths Center cannot continue. Our expenses are too high in this location and we are just not getting enough money coming through the door. All of our resources are tapped, and our volunteers are worn out.”

This decision comes in the wake of a rocky 2011, one that featured an emergency fundraising campaign, and being temporarily closed  pending internal and external financial audits. It seems that Sacred Paths Center wasn’t able to overcome the many obstacles towards long-term sustainability, and it raises serious questions for other communities looking to follow in their footsteps. Stay tuned to PNC-Minnesota for further follow-ups on this story.

Maetreum of Cybele Denied Tax Exemption for 2012: The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, in an ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill, New York, has been denied religious property tax exemption yet again, even though they meet all federal and state qualifications. In a public statement, Rev Cathryn Platine of the Maetreum of Cybele noted that the town has spent an estimated quarter of a million dollars to deny their exemptions.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

“Despite the fact that the Town of Catskill offered no credible theory in court for their continued denial of exemption, I was just informed that the Maetreum of Cybele has been denied property tax exemption for 2012 meaning another entire round in this ongoing drama. The wheels of justice turn very slowly in Greene County, New York. The actual trial was split between two days last November and December but the final arguments in our court case still have not been submitted at this time. They are supposed to be due in about two weeks and then we will have to await the Judge’s actual decision after that. In the meantime we will once again have to go to the Board of Review hearing later in May and almost certainly be denied again and have to file yet another lawsuit against Catskill. Despite claims to the press for several years that Catskill did not question our legitimacy as a religion, the entirety of their case was exactly that we were not a legitimate religion under the IRS guidelines. Again despite the IRS recognition we are. We proved in court we met every one of the IRS “fourteen points” for determining what is or isn’t a church.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the law in this case seems pretty clearly on the side of the Maetreum of Cybele, but Catskill is going to wage a scorched earth legal campaign in hopes the Pagans run out of money and energy first. Acting Catskill Town Supervisor Patrick Walsh stated in 2011 that the town was already too deep into the case to give up and that significant dollars could be saved by preventing exemptions for illegitimate religions.” We’ll keep you updated on further developments. For those wanting to an make a tax-deductible donation to their $10,000+ legal bill, you can do so directly via paypal to: centralhouse@gallae.com. Or you can contact them through their website.

SAPRA’s Annual Advocacy Against Witch-Hunts Comes to a Close: With the issue of witch-hunts, witch-killings, and dangerous exorcisms very much in the news lately, I thought it appropriate to mention the work of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA), under the banner of ‘Touchstone Advocacy,’ has been doing since 2008 to raise awareness with their “30 Days of Advocacy Against Witch-Hunts” campaign, this year held from March 29th – April 27th. In 2011, the campaign won support from a government commission, and they continue to work to protect victims of witch-hunts while combating laws that seek to criminalize “witchcraft” as a solution.

“Since 2008 the South African Pagan Rights Alliance has repeatedly appealed to all Commissions for Human Rights internationally to encourage all governments to: a. halt the persecution of suspected or accused witches, b. uphold and strengthen a culture of human rights for all equally, c. respond appropriately and humanely to incidences of accusations of witchcraft, d. make the eradication of violence against suspected witches an international priority, e. train local police to manage witchcraft accusations and violent witch-hunts in a way that affirms the dignity and humanity of those accused of practising witchcraft, f. create victim support units to facilitate reintegration and conciliation of those accused, g. adopt comprehensive public education and awareness programmes aimed at eradicating the real causes of witchcraft accusations, and h. reform legislation that currently seeks to suppress witchcraft or criminalize accused witches.”

You can receive year-round updates on their campaign at their Facebook group page.

In other community news:

- At Lewelllyn, author and magician Donald Michael Kraig (“Modern Magick”“The Resurrection Murders”) has announced that he’s writing a book about his long friendship with Scott Cunningham, the seminal Wiccan writer who authored the paradigm-shifting “Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.” Quote: “I hope you get an idea of who Scott Cunningham was. Many of the anecdotes and stories have never been published before. The stories and his magical methods pepper chapters on his theories and methods of performing natural magic, his approach to The Goddess and Wicca, and his love for the land, people and magic of Hawaii.”

- San Jose State University will be running a Pagan Studies conference semi-concurrently with the 2013 PantheaCon. Organized by Lee Gilmore (SJSU), author “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man,” and Amy Hale (St. Petersburg College), “Pagans in Dialogue with the Wider World: A Pagan Studies Symposium” seeks to, quote, “focus on Paganism’s contributions to and engagements with broader cultural and religious dialogues in an increasingly pluralist world.” You can read the full announcement and call for papers at Chas Clifton’s blog.

- PNC-Washington DC covers the recently held 2012 Ecumenicon, an interfaith conference that was founded in 1987, and features significant Pagan and esoteric involvement. Quote: “The group that would ultimately found Ecumenicon realized that there was a hunger for actual religious education as it applied across all religions and particularly to alternative religions.  Ecumenicon comprises an ecumenical conference and ecumenical ministry, for those who seek such a path.”

- Is Pagan Spirit Gathering’s current home in Illinois in danger? PNC-Minnesota reports that a group of local citizens are petitioning to have Stonehouse Park rezoned back to agricultural use only (more on this here), complaining of noise and drug-use (none of the complaints are about PSG, but to other, non-Pagan events). PSG/Circle organizer Sharon Stewart is working with local officials, and hopes to obtain a special permit if the worst should happen. We’ll keep you posted on this as news develops.

- PNC culture blog The Juggler has an interview up with Pagan author Christopher Penczak (“The Inner Temple of Witchcraft”“The Outer Temple of Witchcraft”), talking to him about his career and teachings. Quote: “I think if you focus on your intention in the ritual, and then think which of these paths support that overall vision, you’ll be doing great. Avoid the “Everything but the kitchen sink mentality.” Every ritual doesn’t need every path. I think determining if it is inhibitory or exhibitory is the first step, then which paths will help in that method?”

That’s all I have for now, have a happy May 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.

Top Story: A high school industrial arts teacher in Iowa has been put on temporary leave in the wake of a controversy concerning a student who was told to stop building a Wiccan altar in shop class. Dale Halferty of Guthrie Center High School claims he was simply enforcing the separation of Church and State, and that he had prevented a Christian from building a cross previously, but school officials claim that neither of those actions actually line up with guidelines regarding religious expression at school.

“His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?” School officials say Christians actually do get to express themselves in the same way. More than one school policy, as well as state and federal law, prohibit discrimination against students who express religious beliefs through school assignments. Superintendent Steve Smith and Principal Garold Thomas said they placed Halferty on leave while they conferred with the school’s attorney to decide what to do.”

In other words, Halferty was imposing his distorted idea of what the guidelines were on his students, and he makes his feelings about Wicca quite plain, calling it “terrible for our kids” because it will lead to a “dark and violent life”.  He also has the bizarre belief that school tax dollars are meant to “save” kids from Pagan religion. Meanwhile, thanks to this incident, a backlash against the Wiccan student has materialized, with 70 of the 185 students signing a petition saying they don’t want witchcraft practiced at their school.

“Both [Superintendent Steve] Smith and [Principal Garold] Thomas said the incident has become emotional for the high school’s 185 students: Almost 70 signed a petition late last week saying they didn’t want witchcraft practiced at the school.”I think it’s fear based on some of the old ideas people had about witchcraft,” Smith said. “It’s fear and a lack of knowledge about the unknown.” Neither Smith nor school officials identified the student at the center of the controversy, and the boy’s father declined a request made through Thomas to be interviewed. Smith acknowledged that some people have expressed fears about satanism or sacrifices.”

Locals are now engaged in hand-wringing over the school’s excessive tolerance, and the bare-bones story, without the context of Halferty’s unique views on religion at school, has hit the Associated Press wires. So expect a lot more commentary and furor over this situation in the near future. As for the high school senior, what chance does he now have for finishing out his school year without harassment and intimidation? When the student body has become a mob against him, can things truly return to normal?

Checking in With the Third Wave: AlterNet takes a broad look at the New Apostolic Reformation, aka the Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, a protestant Charismatic/Pentecostal Christian hybrid led by “Convening Apostle” C. Peter Wagner. The movement became (in)famous in recent years thanks to politician/pundit Sarah Palin’s long membership and association with the group, which places a heavy emphasis on spiritual warfare, and brags about killing and maiming Catholics and Pagans with their prayer. Now reporter Bill Berkowitz probes NAR’s deep influence with ultra-conservative politicians like Michele Bachmann (involved in anti-Pagan groups), Sam Brownback, and Jim DeMint, and their role in initiatives like California’s Proposition 8.

“In the days leading up to the historic vote on health-care reform in the Senate, Apostle Lou Engle led the Family Research Council’s “Prayercast” against health-care reform, a Webcast featuring Republican Senators Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kans.), and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). Earlier in the year, Engle, who leads the group TheCall, prayed over Newt Gingrich at a Virginia event called Rediscovering God in America. In 2008, Engle, at an event he staged at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, advocated acts of Christian martyrdom to end abortion and same-sex marriage. This “apostle” claims LGBT people are possessed by demons.”

You may remember that I covered that “Rediscovering God in America” event, it’s the one where Newt Gingrich claimed America was “surrounded by paganism”. Berkowitz goes on to interview Rachel Tabachnick, who writes for Talk2Action, and who has done a remarkable amount of research into the NAR/Third Wave movement. Here’s her follow-up commentary on Berkowitz’s article/interview, and a resource directory of the NAR/Third Wave movement. As I’ve intimated here before, this movement is rabidly anti-Pagan, and would have no compunctions about using their political and fiscal muscle against us. Their rise to power is deeply troubling, because unlike the “Moral Majority” or “Religious Right” of ages past their agenda isn’t limited to enacting conservative social policy, but instead calls for the aggressive spiritual destruction of all who they see as enemies (and anyone who worships the “Queen of Heaven” is considered their enemy). So let’s keep our eyes open, and be aware  of who your elected representatives are associating themselves with.

War of Words in South Africa: The South African Pagan Rights Alliance (SAPRA) has lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission against allegedly libelous statements made by Traditional Healers Organization national coordinator Phephisile Maseko.

“Maseko’s repeated allegation that muthi murderers are “witches” practicing “witchcraft” remains untrue and defamatory. This Alliance demands that the South African Human Rights Commission (1.) properly investigates repeated libelous allegations made by Phephisile Maseko against South African Witches, (2.) makes a ruling regarding the innocence of self-identified Witches with regard to allegations made by Maseko that we are responsible for the commission of muthi murders, and (3.) instructs the Traditional Healers Organization national coordinator to cease making libelous statements against South African Witches.”

However, Maseko is unmoved by SAPRA’s position concerning the use of the word “witch”, saying their complaint amounts to little more than white privilege.

“Let’s be honest here — a witch is a witch and everybody in the country knows that. Publicly calling yourself a witch in South Africa smacks of white privilege. In a village or township, you’d be dead even before completing your proclamation. Sapra must accept that we speak different languages and live in different areas”

This latest development seems to be driving a wedge between South Africa’s traditional healers and South Africa’s Pagan community. Despite my sympathies towards the Pagans in South Africa, it is rather plain that Maseko and SAPRA are using the term “witch” in very different contexts, and that the two sides are talking past each other. While I don’t agree with South African Parliament member, and out Pagan, Adrian Williams that they should abandon the term “witch” in order to foster better relations with traditional healers, there must be some sort of understanding that can be reached between the two communities regarding terminology. Let’s hope that cooler heads prevail.

How to Become the Last Great Pagan: Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham University explains how 4th century Roman statesman Quintus Aurelius Symmachus became known as the “last great pagan”.

“As it turns out, that dubious moniker was foisted on Symmachus by allies of his most prominent rival, St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, according to Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham. In her presentation on Jan. 27, “How Did Symmachus Become the Last Great Pagan?” Sogno explained that Symmachus was the victim of a classic political tactic—victors extolling the strength of their opponents to make their own accomplishments seem even greater. The seeds of the nickname were sown in a report, or relatio, issued in 384 A.D. to the 12-year-old Western emperor, Valentinian II, in which Symmachus mounted a defense of the traditional religion of Rome. “There can be little doubt that the relatio is a beautifully constructed speech, and by far the most appealing piece of writing produced by Symmachus. Its compelling plea for religious toleration—in contrast with the almost fanatical intolerance that transpires from St. Ambrose—makes the text closer to the sensibilities of 21st century readers,” she said. The problem, Sogno said, is that Symmachus never published it.”

So there you are, posthumous praise from Christians looking to make their own victories more impressive hoisted a humble statesman and man of letters into lasting prominence. Luckily we are now living in an age where the term “last great pagan” is increasingly outdated. We can argue as to who among our growing numbers are truly “great”, but we most likely won’t have to worry about there being a “last” great pagan thinker any time soon.

The Horror of Pagan Felt: Behold! The Muppet Wicker Man Comic.

Funny yet deeply disturbing at the same time.

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

Top Story: Well, that didn’t take long. While many have been pleased with the Air Force Academy’s recent turn towards accommodation for minority faiths in the wake of accusations that an aggressive and pervasive evangelical Christianity was creating a hostile environment for non-Christians, it seems that some aren’t so sanguine regarding recent changes. With national headlines touting a newly installed stone circle for Pagan cadets, some enterprising Christians decided it needed a finishing touch.

“The Air Force Academy, stung several years ago by accusations of Christian bias, has built a new outdoor worship area for pagans and other practitioners of Earth-based religions. But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there. “We’ve been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback,” said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and has often tangled with the academy over such issues.”

While Weinstein is criticizing academy leadership for not informing cadets of the incident, he has praised Lt. Gen. Mike Gould for “acting swiftly and decisively” to ensure it doesn’t happen again. As for the act of “desecration” itself, one could argue that since the circle hasn’t been officially dedicated yet (that happens in March), there was nothing to desecrate. But like cheap gifts, it’s the thought that counts. One could only imagine the outpouring of rage had some anonymous Pagans placed a pentacle or Thor’s hammer inside the Christian chapel.

In Other News:

Patrick McCollum v. California: For some more background concerning the ongoing legal battle to win equal treatment for minority faiths in California, check out AREN’s just-posted interview with Patrick McCollum. In it, McCollum addresses many of the questions that have been emerged since this case has gained wider attention.

“Well, first let me say that I do have a legal right to bring this case forward, and that there’s lots of precedent to support that argument. That’s why I am before the 9th circuit court of appeals. Secondly, let me clear the record, the Pagan prisoners also brought this case forward in conjunction with me, and have been Plaintiffs in the case all along. The judge at the District Court level ruled that neither I nor the Pagan inmates had the right to bring it forward, go figure! What’s even more important to note, is that the State’s attorney general’s office, has made the argument that religion in California is two-tiered, and that the five state faiths (the first tiered faiths) are afforded all of the equal rights and protections granted under the Constitution, but that all other faiths including Pagans, are second tier … and are only afforded lesser rights, similar to one another. It is this concept that Pagans and other minority faiths are somehow less endowed, that I am fighting to overcome.”

I’d also like to note that I have contacted the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for an official comment on these latest developments, and have yet to receive any word back.

In a somewhat related note, I’d also like to mention that Patrick McCollum, on Imbolc, was installed to the Executive Board of Directors of a United Nations NGO, Children Of The Earth.

“This organization focuses on international youth utilizing spirituality as a tool, to bring about positive change in approaching many of the world’s problems. There are chapters across the world. While the Executive Board is composed of a small number of people, I feel honored and humbled to be included in the company of such distinguished individuals as a State Senator, the Speech Writer for Dr. Martin Luther King, and other similarly situated persons.”

Congratulations to Patrick! You can find out more about Children of the Earth at their web site.

African Pagans Against Witch Hunts: The South African Pagan Rights Alliance & South African Pagan Council are gearing up  for the 3rd annual “30 days of advocacy against Witch-hunts in Africa” from 29 March to 27 April 2010.

“The 2010 campaign is aimed at petitioning the African Union General Assembly and the Pan-African Parliament, to address the ongoing witchcraft hysteria in Africa, through constructive and humane programmes that seek to entrench and strengthen human rights and human dignity, instead of seeking to suppress witchcraft or ignore ongoing human rights abuses within member countries.”

Supporters of their campaign can sign a petition, or join the Facebook group. Further plans and actions will be announced closer to the start of the campaign. You can contact TouchStone Advocacy for more information on how to help.

Vodouisants Plan Memorial in Haiti: Max Beauvoir, Augustin St. Clou, and other Vodou leaders in Haiti are planning a national memorial service, funeral rites for the estimated 150,000 dead, and a week of scheduled mourning.

A week of mourning is scheduled to begin as early as next week with a service in front of the destroyed presidential palace. The event will include a traditional voodoo funeral rite for the more than 150,000 people who died in last month’s earthquake, said Max Beauvoir, the supreme priest of Haitian voodoo. Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders have also been invited to participate. “We want to honour all those who disappeared, but we also want to make it a celebration of life, so that the people can regain their strength,” Beauvoir told Canwest News Service in a phone interview Tuesday evening. “Because life must go on.”

While Vodou practitioners try to move past this tragedy and begin rebuilding, mainstream media seems increasingly fascinated with this oft-misunderstood faith. National Geographic interviews Wade “The Serpent and the Rainbow” Davis about Vodou, misconceptions, and Pat Robertson. He also anticipates the very memorial service now being planned.

“All people in all cultures honor the dead, and the fact that the sheer scale of the disaster has precluded the possibility of proper ritual burials will be a source of concern and sadness to all Haitians. Perhaps in time some of this grief may be released in a ceremony of national remembrance that will honor all who have been lost. For now the rest of us, the entire global community, must do everything we can to support the living and facilitate the rebirth of a nation that has given so much to the world.”

While some continue to peddle misinformation and lies about this faith, a strong pro-Vodou voice is emerging, and we may find a Vodou in post-earthquake Haiti that is unafraid to confront its critics or exist in the public eye.

Skip Having Breakfast With The Family: A growing number of voices are urging President Obama to either boycott the National Prayer Breakfast, or to use that opportunity to criticize the sponsoring group The Family/The Fellowship, for their support of Uganda’s notorious “kill the gays” bill.

You can read more about “The Family” and their theocratic agenda in my interview with journalist Jeff Sharlet, here. So far it seems unlikely that Obama will snub the prayer breakfast, which has been attended by every president since Eisenhower, but there is a faint hope that he will criticize the sponsors. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

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