Standing as Pagans, In Yana’s Name

A Pagan in Syria is dead, ripped apart by political and religious zeal, raped and tortured by intolerance.

Her name was Yana.

Yesterday, I was speaking with priestess Crystal Blanton about how much of the interfaith work we do is easily overlooked. People think of interfaith work as Don Frew serving the United Religions Initiative; Patrick McCollum and Rachael Watcher traveling to India; Angie Buchanan, Phyllis Curott or Grove Harris working with the Parliament of Worlds Religions; Macha Nightmare helping the Marin Interfaith Council; or Andras Corban Arthen meeting with faith leaders in Mexico.

Interfaith work is all of these important things, and yet, it is so much more. David Salisbury working at the Human Rights Campaign is interfaith work. Joseph Nichter and Robert Russell talking with prison chaplains as they do their ministry behind bars is interfaith education. Courtney Weber showing up at Occupy Wall Street is interfaith work. All the social justice work I do is interfaith work. When I show up for phone calls with the Council on Foreign Relations and say I am a Pagan minister, that is interfaith work. Every person who attends a city council or PTA meeting as a Pagan, Wiccan, Heathen, or Druid is doing interfaith work.

Why is this important? Those of us who find it safe enough to do so must walk in the world as we are, who we are. We must talk to people of other religions and no religion about the love we hold for the earth, the reverence we hold for our Gods and the importance of pluralism. The more of us that do this, the greater a chance for understanding, globally. By living pluralism, we spread pluralism.

What does this have to do with Yana? Everything and nothing. Syrians are living between a rock and a hard place and there is little we can do about it. There is a murderous despot in charge, and those rebelling against him seem no better. People are scared for their lives. When people are frightened, fundamentalism rises as a way to try to impose sense and order on the world. Yana was a Pagan. She is now dead because her fundamentalist brother turned her in. We can’t save her. What we can do, together, is become a global voice speaking for justice. What we can do, together, is become a voice that says, “People of Pagan and polytheist religions are doing good work in the world. We are a force for peace and justice. We are sowing seeds of love and change.” We can do that work unflinchingly and unapologetically. When we stand hand in hand with people of other religions, we can say “blessed be” or “hail.” These are small things, but they add up. They send out ripples of awareness.

A friend once asked me why I attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia. He didn’t understand why interfaith work was useful. I replied that while I prefer to do my interfaith work under the guise of service, peace, and justice, things like the Parliament are important. Why? Because of the conversations in the halls. Because of shared meals. Because shaking hands and breaking bread with someone who has never met a Pagan changes the world. It is a small encounter. But those small encounters mean that someone might return to Saudi Arabia, or Syria or some other place and remember that they met someone whose religion was not theirs, and that person seemed upstanding, that person fed the hungry or planted trees. That person was not a force for evil, but for good.

And maybe, just maybe, that person would open her home to someone like Yana, and take her into hiding when she was in danger. And maybe, just maybe, years from now, the society itself would start to change enough that those in political or religious power would begin to listen to people who said, “My sister is Pagan. She is a good woman. Our world must include a place for others like her.” Perhaps these encounters would sow the ground for understanding instead of fear.

We don’t know the effect our actions will have on the world. With every honest encounter we risk having, we set some wheels in motion, we loosen a knot, or turn on a light. Someday, these actions just might save a life. We each have a choice to do interfaith work. Every single day.

When I heard the news of Yana’s death from Cara Schulz, I asked if there was anything we could do, as a community. I had donated money for blankets for Syrian refugees many months ago. Was there something like this she thought I might help organize? She quickly set up a page in Yana’s memory with Medecins Sans Frontieres. The money will go to supply doctors working to help those affected by the fighting in Syria. I pledged to donate, and to spread the word.

Will you stand with me and with Cara? Will you stand as Pagan, Wiccan, Heathen, Polytheist, non-Deist, or whatever name you choose? Will you take this small action – $5, $10, $50 – and honor Yana, who was brave enough to live as a Pagan in a place hostile to her very existence?

The living have a responsibility to the dead and to those who are yet to come. We are the bridge between space and time. What we choose to do, matters. Let’s do this thing, for Yana, for each other, for the world.

What is remembered lives.


T. Thorn Coyle is a magic worker. An internationally respected teacher of the magical and esoteric arts, she is author of Make Magic of Your Life: Purpose, Passion, and the Power of Desire (March, 2013), as well as Kissing the LimitlessEvolutionary Witchcraft, and Crafting a Daily Practice. Host of Elemental Castings and the Fiat LVX! video series, she writes a popular weblog, Know Thyself, and has produced several CDs of sacred music. Often called a “Master Teacher” Thorn’s teaching and spiritual direction practices help people worldwide. Pagan, mystic, and activist, she is founder and head of Solar Cross Temple and Morningstar Mystery School and lives by the San Francisco Bay.

  • Karina Black Heart

    Thank you, Thorn. I mourn for Yana and for Witches and Pagans the world over who are tortured and killed for their religious beliefs. I mourn for the world where anyone is tortured and killed for religious belief.
    Thank you as well for broadening the definition of “interfaith work.” I didn’t think I was cut out for Interfaith Work, but I see now I’ve been doing it all along.
    Blessings.

    • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

      I’m glad for that last, Karina. That sort of work is so needed.

      And yes, we must mourn. We must.

  • Sunweaver

    It so happens that our Women of Faith group decided to talk about Syria as the subject of this month’s meeting. While my work with this group as a founding member and a Pagan isn’t global in scale, I hope it helps.
    I’ve forwarded the Doctors Without Borders link to the other founders. This is heartbreaking. I wish I could do more.

    • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

      Thank you.

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  • Crystal Blanton

    When we live in truth and step forward to represent that to the world, we are creating waves of potential understanding that reach far into the future, that extend beyond that one encounter and that stand up for the principal of the freedom of worship that we have here in the States. We are privileged and we need to use that privilege to open the doors for others.

    I am honored to stand with you, with Cara Shultz, and with Yana any day of the week. It is one of the most important things we can do together, show love and united support for those who cannot do it for themselves.

    I am heartbroken by this event and yet I feel that it should be our collective mission to make sure she is not forgotten and that her sacrifice was important to her people. We are her people…. and it is important.

    • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

      “We are privileged and we need to use that privilege to open the doors for others.”

      Yes.

  • Te-Erika

    I am not a Pagan. I am nothing really. Your message of interfaith work touches me because I have been doing it too. In my work as a women’s empowerment teacher, I try to bridge all faiths and point to commonalities in human interaction. I am hoping that my non allegiance to one faith does not hold me back from connecting with others in the future the way some have ran away from me in the past.

    Thank you for giving me another label to bring awareness to.

    • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

      Te-Erika, this feels like an important point. We can let anything divide us. We can also keep giving each other the gift of returning to our wish for connection.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leslieclairewalker Leslie Claire Walker

    Thorn, thank you for writing so powerfully about this. When I saw the news yesterday, I felt moved to donate, and also felt too griefstricken for words. It is good to read yours.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mickey.mcclinton Heather Mickey McClinton

    “When we stand hand in hand with people of other religions, we can say “blessed be” or “hail.” These are small things, but they add up. They send out ripples of awareness.”

    I know this may seem off topic for some, but thank you, Thorn, for this. I don’t know why this never occurred to me as the appropriate action when standing amongst those of other religions. It has always bothered me to stand mute as others pray, to be mute as my Christian family says Amen. It seemed to me that there had to be something that I could say or do to show my respect for (and often agreement with) the sentiments being expressed at these times. Part of the reason it bothered me is the fact that it seemed an obvious moment for a small piece of interfaith work. It is a moment for me to show I respect them, their beliefs, and their rituals while at the same time not denying my own. Thank you so very much for this. Blessed be.

    • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

      I’m glad!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hermione-Volino/100000592766038 Hermione Volino

    This proves that what others in the United States is going through is nothing compared to what this girl went through. She died for her faith and her memory will last forever.

    • http://profiles.google.com/thorncoyle T Thorn Coyle

      What is remembered, lives. My heart goes out to the people in Syria who are trapped by this situation, and to all the families who have lost so much.

    • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

      That is a good deal of erasure I am completely uncomfortable with. There are still Pagan families being torn apart by courts with their religion being used against them. There are still Pagans afraid of becoming, or being unemployed because they are out about their faith. They may not be dead, but those who stand for their faith, who have suffered for their faith, should be honored regardless if they gave their life or not.

      That takes nothing away from Yana’s death, and adds to our recognition that many lives are under threat even if we do not risk public stoning right now. It is a dangerous thing in many towns to stand up and be recognized, and that bravery, wherever it manifests, needs to be honored.

      Hail to Yana, and hail to all the brave Pagans who risk life, limb, reputation, career, communities, and children to be who and what they are. Hail to the Dead;
      “Cattle die and kinsman die
      And oneself too must die
      But I know what never dies:
      One whose name is remembered”

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