Archives For Touchstone Advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

accusation

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

However, as pointed out by Damon Leff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

By Enoc vt (File:Botón Me gusta.svg)

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

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

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

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

Never Again the Burning Times??

Courtesy of Flickr's emilydickinsonridesabmx

Courtesy of Flickr’s emilydickinsonridesabmx

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!