The Fall of a Syrian Pagan

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Earlier this week I pointed to the fact that modern Paganism is now a global phenomenon. That we aren’t simply a small religious movement isolated to North America and the UK, and that we will increasingly be affected by issues we thought relegated to “over there.” Things that “aren’t our problem.” When I wrote that piece I knew that “Yana,” a Syrian Pagan, and friend of Pagan Newswire Collective Managing Editor Cara Schulz, had been killed, but it wasn’t my story to tell, my obituary to write. Today, at PNC-Minnesota, Cara tells the story of her death, learned through another Middle Eastern source that she considers reliable.

Syria in ruins.

Syria in ruins.

“What happened to her is so ugly I’m struggling to … I can’t even finish that sentence.  I’ll just tell you what I have learned, and although I trust this source, there is no way for me to independently confirm this.  Some time in late June, Yana’s brother, who had become radicalized, informed the rebels that his sister was a Pagan.  They took her, tortured her, then her brother publicly denounced her as a whore and a witch.  After that, she was drug out onto the street, raped, and killed.

What I remember about Yana is she was always joking, always smiling.  She injected joy into everything she did, from talking about the Gods she honored to showing off her latest hair style.  She had more hair combs than anyone I’ve ever known.  She wanted to come to America and eat bacon.  She was fascinated and repelled by the thought of bacon so I would tell her about putting it in chocolate and on maple ice cream.  She was nervous about getting married.  Her father doted on her and she worried a husband might not be so kind or forgiving of her free spirit.  She told me younger men like to show how manly they are so she thought about telling her parents to find an older man for her to marry.  It was hard to see her become less exuberant as the fighting started, and then drew closer.  To see fear creep in and hear from her less often.   How sad she was that she never left her home anymore because it wasn’t safe.”

In January, Schulz wrote about how the small and isolated number of modern Pagans in places like Syria and Egypt were falling silent as fighting and political turmoil reached new heights.

Yana's last communication to Cara Schulz.

Yana’s last communication to Cara Schulz.

“The situation in Syria appears to be more grave, according to the last messages I received from the five Pagans I chat with regularly. They spoke of the fighting and how places looked like Beirut, buildings just shells of themselves, rubble blocking the streets. They detailed neighbors going missing. Islamic fundamentalist patrols that monitor behavior and took violent action against people who violated rules and customs. They debated fleeing, worried about being outed as a Pagan, and started destroying or burying altars. Three began attending local mosques to show their devotion to Islam.

Yana dropped off first.  I last heard from her in June of 2012.  Bayan, another Syrian Pagan, also hadn’t heard from her but said fighting in her area was intense.  He said he had seen patrols targeting young women and men, beating them and he said it was rumored they were raping them.  He thought perhaps she fled to a safer area or was silent to avoid detection.”

These aren’t Christians or Muslims accused of sorcery, these aren’t dissidents accused of heresy, these are our people. These are modern Pagans, people interested in reviving their own culture’s pre-Christian past, people who were, and are, deeply curious about what their Western cousins were doing, what we were thinking. These were our people killed in this conflict “over there.” Our people in hiding, on the run, pretending to be (the right kind of) Muslims, trying to survive. The situation brings to mind a classic chant often used as public Pagan rituals by Morning Feather and Will Shepardson.

“We are an old people, we are a new people, we are the same people, stronger than before.”

To my mind, the chant was about continuity, about solidarity. That modern Pagans were diverse, that we came from different sources, but that we were a movement who were now coming together to be stronger, to declare ourselves to the world. It’s time that our movement claimed the full responsibility for our success. We have been working a global spell for the last fifty years, telling everyone that the Witches, the Pagans, the Heathens, the old ways, were back, that everyone who felt that connection should embrace it, should return to the old gods, should join us in becoming a movement of people who were stronger than when we fell before. The spell has worked, now we must embrace what it has brought us, however imperfect, or inconvenient, or painful some of it may be. When you try to change the dominant religious paradigms of the world, people will die, they will be placed in danger by mobs who want power, who fear change, who want to establish never-ending towers of dominance. This is not hyperbole, because far from the (relative) privilege and safety of the West, there are people who heard our chants, our calls, and are now hiding and dying as a result.

What can we do? What should we do? We start by engaging with the world, by re-doubling our interfaith efforts, by supporting the organizations that are sending people to speak for us. Beyond that, we can support Doctors Without Borders, who have a long and positive track-record of helping people in war-stricken lands (there’s an option to earmark for Syria), and we can educate ourselves on all those issues “over there.” This self-education doesn’t mean we all have to agree on how we should respond, but we can at least start from a place of awareness when we do have these conversations. Finally, we can pray, do magic, and do ritual, for all Pagans across the world endangered because of who they are, because of where they are, realizing that such workings are the prelude, not the end-point, of action.

ADDENDUM: For those of you wanting to donate to Doctors WIthout Borders in Yana’s name, Cara Schulz has set up a special page at their website for that purpose, and hopes to raise $1000 for relief efforts.