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Saving Pagan Lives

By Don Frew


Serving on the global council of the United Religions Initiative (URI) for 15 years has given me a new perspective on my own spiritual family. URI has grown to become the largest grassroots interfaith organization in the world, with more than 650 local groups in over 85 countries. Through URI, I have seen the power that comes with the “indigenous, tribal, polytheistic, Nature-based, Earth-centered, and/or Pagan religions” being understood as a single group. One story makes the point.

Connecting at the Parliament Assembly

In 2004, I was part of the Parliament Assembly, a group of 450 representative leaders from various religious traditions as well as officials from organizations like the Red Cross and the World Bank. We met at Montserrat, in Spain, for a few days in advance of the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona. We were charged with working on the four themes of that Parliament: access to clean water, the plight of refugees, relieving Third World debt, and ending religious violence. An ambitious charge!

Mussie Hailu, in the tie, with Don Frew standing to his left, pose with a Catholic bishop from Uganda and two Pakistani Muslims at a URI event in San Francisco – Photo: COG

Mussie Hailu, in the tie, with Don Frew standing to his left, pose with a Catholic bishop from Uganda and two Pakistani Muslims at a URI event in San Francisco – Photo: COG

We started out meeting in small groups of eight or so. Each of us shared a personal story related to one or more of the themes. My group included Mussie Hailu, today a leading African voice for interfaith peacemaking and director of URI Africa. We’ve worked together since the mid-1990s. Mussie is a Coptic Christian from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He told our group in Montserrat about an ethnic group in Ethiopia called the Tabebe. The Tabebe possess the power of tenkwe – literally “far seeing.” One can be born into the Tabebe, or else discover that one has the power of tenkweand go to the Tabebe for training. The Tabebe speak with nature spirits. People go to the Tabebe to have their fortunes told, for charms, for healing. I felt at home. The Tabebe sounded a lot like Romanies, or Witches.

However, for many Ethiopians, if a member of your family falls mysteriously ill, you figure out which of the Tabebe must have cursed the family member, and you kill them to break the curse. The government turns a blind eye. In fact, Mussie elaborated, the Tabebe are considered so disreputable that they are not allowed to settle in cities, their children are not allowed to attend public schools, and they are forbidden in public hospitals.

When Mussie and his interfaith partner in Ethiopia, Sr. Laetitia Borg, set out to create the first interfaith organization in Addis Ababa – a “cooperation circle” of the URI – he told her that they should reach out to the Tabebe. Like most people in the Abrahamic religions, Sr. Laetitia didn’t see the Tabebe as a religious group and didn’t see a need to include them.

At the next URI global summit, held in 1999 in Stanford, California, Mussie came up to me. Without sharing any of the Tabebe back story, he told me I needed to tell Sr. Laetitia about Wicca. She and I had a long conversation over lunch, ended up friends, and did a blessing ceremony together at the end of the conference.

Mussie and Sr. Latitia went back to Adis Ababa and founded a URI group in Ethiopia. They included the Tabebe, and for their logo they used a variation of the early URI logo that included a pentacle among its religious symbols. As they expected, leaders of religious groups in Ethiopia asked why they were including the Tabebe, and also asked why the URI was using this symbol. (The pentacle is widely associated with magic and until recently not with a religion.) Mussie and Sr. Laetitia explained that the pentacle is the symbol of Wicca and that Wicca is an international religion that speaks with nature spirits, looks into the future, does magic and healing, just like the Tabebe.

As a light bulb lit up in the head of religious leader after religious leader, the Tabebe were accepted into the interfaith community. This acceptance led to these religious leaders pushing for changes in government. It worked. It is now against the law to kill a Tabebe, and such crimes are prosecuted. They can live in cities. Their children can go to school. They have access to health care.

All of this directly follows from the courageous actions of a few people and the kind of relationships and conversations that interfaith work fosters. My fellow Pagans often ask me why we should do interfaith work. I have many standard answers. But after hearing this story from Mussie, I added that we should do this work to help preserve the lives of our fellow Earth religionists and create a future for their children.

The folks involved in the URI back then only knew about Witches and Wicca. But all of the groups that have been called “Neopagan,” all Earth-based spiritual traditions, and more, have benefited from the same increasing understanding and acceptance.