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Hundreds of criminals are to be given four days a year off prison work – to celebrate pagan festivals.

Prison governors have been issued with a list of eight annual pagan holidays and told pagan inmates can choose four to celebrate.

The festivals include Imbolc – The Festival of the Lactating Sheep – which falls on February 1 and is dedicated to the goddess Brighid.

Jail celebration: Prisoners can get time off work to mark pagan festivals such as the Summer Solstice, being celebrated here at Stonehenge, WiltshireJail celebration: Prisoners can get time off work to mark pagan festivals such as the Summer Solstice, being celebrated here at Stonehenge, Wiltshire

pagan prisoners given time off to worship sun godCelebrating the summer solstice at Stonehenge. New guidelines entitled ‘Religious Festival dates for 2011′ state that all prison staff must be made aware of the pagan festival dates

Another is the festival of Beltane, which falls in early May, devotees are urged to celebrate the Sun God with ‘unabashed sexuality and promiscuity’.

The Yule festival involves pagans ‘casting spells’ and dressing up as ghosts.

Pagan inmates may even be allowed special food and drink on their days off.

Traditional pagan food include Ewe’s milk for Imbolc, Simnel Cake and eggs on Spring Equinox and Roast Goose on Autumn Equinox.

On Samhain – celebrated on Halloween – pagans by tradition go apple bobbing.

It is the latest in a series of rulings to protect convicts’ rights and ensure equality among different faiths.

New guidelines entitled ‘Religious Festival dates for 2011′ state that all prison staff must be made aware of the pagan festival dates.

It states: ‘The Prison Service is committed to ensuring that prisoners from all religious faiths are given the opportunity and facilities to practise their religions.’

It lists the eight main festivals before adding: ‘Most Pagans celebrate the eight festivals set out, but depending on the particular tradition would attach particular significance to certain days.’

‘Because of variations in emphasis between different Pagan traditions it has been agreed with the Pagan Federation that prisoners may choose four festivals on which they should not be required to work.’

Rights: Prison governors have been issued with a list of eight annual pagan holidays (file picture)Rights: Prison governors have been issued with a list of eight annual pagan holidays (file picture)

Prisons are told they must prepare specific foods if it is a requirement of a prisoner’s religion. But the guidance states the food should be prepared inside prison kitchens and the cost must be ‘proportionate to the number of prisoners involved’.

Paganism was first recognised by the Prison Service as a religion more than nine years ago.

The number of prisoners declaring themselves as pagan has tripled in six years to 366 last year.

Worshippers are allowed to keep tarot cards, a hoodless robe and a twig to use as a wand in their cell.

They can also keep incense, a piece of jewellery and rune stones.

Skyclad, or naked worship, is banned.

Pagan inmate Mark Stewart, who is serving a three year term for drug dealing at HMP Elmley in Kent, wrote to prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time this month to complain about how Pagans are treated.

He claimed Pagans had been ‘sidelined’ and ‘marginalised’ in favour of more popular religions.

He wrote: ‘There is a perception amongst most people that Pagans are devil worshippers, etc, but that is so far from the truth.

‘I am an earth loving person who thanks Mother Earth, spirits and ancestors for what I have today.

‘I do practise witchcraft, but only for good.’

Sources said there was ‘no question’ of prisoners being served roast goose or boar.

A Prison Service spokesman said: ‘The Prison Service issues annually a list of religious festival dates for the year ahead – this includes key dates on which prisoners registered in that affiliation can be excused from work.’

It comes a day after it emerged that an underworld crime boss jailed for the murder of two grandparents has won the right to be called ‘Mr’ by prison guards.

Colin Gunn complained that he was not treated with sufficient respect and, under guidelines introduced by Labour, prison officers are required to address inmates as they wish.

Pagan Festival dates


I have a good idea how the pastor of the Methodist church in Birkenshaw, England, feels today after finding that someone broke into their church for the purpose of hateful vandalism.

That’s right, England, not a Middle East or Asian country where Christians are a minority. Though I suppose there are some stats that might give credence to the notion that Christians are fast becoming a minorityin much of the Western world as well.

The piano, speakers, and other items were also damaged.

It will be costly to fix and replace the vandalized items but I am hoping that the church reaction will be one of praise to God in the face of this hatred. I hope too that they will earnestly go to battle with the spiritual encampments of Satan in their area and pray that these vandals would return to the church, not as vandals, but as fellow brothers or sisters, forgiven and set free through the blood of the Lamb.

BBC accused of neglecting Christianity

The BBC has been criticised for extensive coverage of a pagan festival to mark Halloween and accused of neglecting Christianity.

The corporation’s 24-hour news channel devoted considerable time to the celebrations in a riverside meadow where witches gathered to celebrate mark Samhain, the turning of the year from light to dark.

Dressed in hooded gowns, women were seen standing in a circle around a cauldron while ritualistic acts were conducted.

Diane Narraway, the coven leader, knelt before a ram’s head to say goodbye to the goddess of light while a broom was used to sweep a sacred circle in the grass.

AG pastor beaten, jailed in India

On Sunday morning, September 26, Assemblies of God of India pastor Shivanda Siddi had his service interrupted as several religious radicals invaded his church, beat him in front of his congregation and then he was arrested by local police.

According to the Global Council of Indian Christians, the attackers were members of the radical group Bajarang Dal. The men entered Pastor Siddi’s church, Gnanodaya AG Church in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, during the service. They argued with the pastor, then took Bibles away from members and proceeded to beat the pastor for about 30 minutes before they called the police and had the pastor arrested after falsely accusing him.

Siddi, five women and two young girls were taken to the police station in Yellapur where, according to GCIC, the pastor was beaten again by the religious radicals in front of police officials.

Later that evening, through the intervention of GCIC, the women and children were released. However, the pastor was subsequently sent to Sirsi jail.

Dr. Sajan George, spokesperson for GCIC, told AG News that on Wednesday, September 29, GCIC was able to get the pastor released on bail, with the help of an attorney. “The radicals tried to attack the GCIC coordinators,” George stated.

“Although I’m deeply pleased that GCIC was able to secure the release of Pastor Siddi,” says Omar Beiler, AG World Missions regional director for Eurasia, “this kind of incident is not isolated or restricted to India. Persecution is a very real experience for many Christians around the world. I believe our prayers for the suffering Church can make the difference between life and death for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ who experience – at the very least – daily threats .”

Christians pray in shuttered church in Indonesia

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Dozens of Christians held prayers inside their boarded-up church near Indonesia’s capital Sunday, saying they had as much right as anyone to worship in the world’s most populous Muslim country.They were surrounded by hundreds of police and unarmed security guards.

Using bullhorns, local officials reminded members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church they were banned from the site following an attack on two church leaders by suspected Islamic hard-liners.

“We just want to carry out our obligations as Christians, but authorities are treating us like terrorists,” said Advent Tambunan, a member of the congregation in the industrial city of Bekasi.

“There’s no justice for us in this country.”

Indonesia, a secular country of 237 million people, has more Muslims than any other in the world. Though the country has a long history of religious tolerance, a small extremist fringe has become more vocal—and violent—in recent years.

Ten people were arrested after last week’s attacks, which left one churchgoer hospitalized with a stab wound. Among them was the local leader of the hard-line Islamic Defender’s Front, which has led calls for the Christians to leave.

In recent months, the hard-liners have thrown shoes and water bottles at the church members, interrupted sermons with chants of “Infidels!” and dumped piles of feces on the land.

Local officials had seven empty buses on standby outside the Batak Christian’s shuttered church Sunday, ready to transport them to an alternate site of worship provided by the government.

But members of the congregation, numbering about 100, refused to budge.

After lengthy negotiations, they were allowed to carry out Sunday services, with the agreement that they would talk later this week about ways to help defuse religious tensions in the neighborhood.

Christian School in Kashmir Attacked Over Reported Quran Desecrations

Hundreds of Muslims in the divided region of Kashmir took to the streets Monday night in violent protest over the reported desecration of Qurans in the United States.

Over a dozen people have reportedly died in the clash that ensued between police and protesters, and a Christian private school was set ablaze in the volatile Himalayan region.

While violence and protests in Kashmir have been ongoing since June, Monday’s protests shifted from India’s rule over the disputed region to anti-Quran actions in the United States, where footage was taken of demonstrators tearing out pages from Islams’s sacred text over the weekend.

Over 8 in 10 Worldwide See Religion as Important

More than eight in ten adults in the world say religion is an important part of their daily lives, according to Gallup surveys conducted last year in 114 countries.

And, as past surveys have found, there remains a strong correlation between a country’s socioeconomic status and the religiosity of its residents.

In the world’s poorest countries – those with average per-capita incomes of $2,000 or less – the median proportion who say religion is important in their daily lives is 95 percent, reported Gallup on Tuesday.

In contrast, the median for the richest countries – those with average per-capita incomes over $25,000 – is 47 percent.

“Social scientists have put forth numerous possible explanations for the relationship between the religiosity of a population and its average income level,” noted Gallup editor Steve Crabtree.

“One theory is that religion plays a more functional role in the world’s poorest countries, helping many residents cope with a daily struggle to provide for themselves and their families. A previous Gallup analysis supports this idea,” he added.

In Gallup’s 2009 analysis of surveys conducted in 143 countries in the three years prior, the organization found that a relationship between religiosity and emotional well-being is stronger among those in poor countries than among those in the developed world.

In its latest report, Gallup said religion was found to be important for 95 percent of people in countries with $2,000 or less per-capita income. And for countries with per-capita income over $2,000 but less than $5,000, 92 percent of people said religion is an important part of their daily life.

After $5,000, the figures dip more, with 82 percent deeming religion as important in countries within the $5,001-12,500 group. For $12,501-25,000, 70 percent said the same. And for countries with per-capita income over $25,001, only 47 percent said religion is an important part of their daily life.

As in past surveys, however, the United States is among the rich countries that buck the trend. According to Gallup’s latest survey, 65 percent of Americans say religion is important in their daily lives. Other high-income countries more likely to stress the importance of religion include Italy, Greece, Singapore, and countries in the Persian Gulf.

The top six countries with the highest percentage of people placing importance on religion were found to be Bangladesh, Niger, Yemen, Indonesia, Malawi, and Sri Lanka – with at least 99 percent in each reporting religion as important in their daily lives.

The six countries with the lowest percentages were Estonia (16 percent), Sweden (17 percent), Denmark (19 percent), Japan (24 percent), and Hong Kong (24 percent).

Results of Gallup’s surveys are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted in 2009 with approximately 1,000 adults in each country.

At Least 150 Women Raped in Weekend Raid in Congo

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — A mob of Rwandan rebels gang-raped at least 150 women last month during a weekend raid on a community of villages in eastern Congo, United Nations and other humanitarian officials said Sunday.

The United Nations blamed the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or F.D.L.R., for the attack. The F.D.L.R. is an ethnic Hutu rebel group that has been terrorizing the hills of eastern Congo for years, preying on villages in a quest for the natural resources beneath them.

The raided villages are near the mining center of Walikale, known to be a rebel stronghold, and are “very insecure,” said Stefania Trassari, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Rape is something we get quite often.”

But she and other United Nations and humanitarian officials said that this attack was unusual because of the large number of victims and the fact that they were raped by more than one attacker simultaneously.

On the evening of July 30, armed men entered the village of Ruvungi, in North Kivu Province.

“They told the population that they were just there for food and rest and that they shouldn’t worry,” said Will F. Cragin, the International Medical Corps’ program coordinator for North Kivu, who visited the village a week after their arrival.

“Then after dark another group came,” said Mr. Cragin, referring to between 200 and 400 armed men who witnesses described as spending days and nights looting Ruvungi and nearby villages.

“They began to systematically rape the population,” he said, adding, “Most women were raped by two to six men at a time.”

The attackers often took the victims into the bush or into their homes, raping them “in front of their children and their families,” Mr. Cragin said. “If a car passed, they would hide.”

The rebels left on Aug. 3, he said, the same day the chief of the area traveled through the villages and reported horrific cases of sexual violence. “We thought at first he was exaggerating,” Mr. Cragin said, “but then we saw the scale of the attacks.”

Miel Hendrickson, a regional director for the International Medical Corps, which has been documenting the rape cases, said, “We had heard first 24 rapes, then 56, then 78, then 96, then 156.”

“The numbers keep rising,” she said. The United Nations maintains a military base approximately 20 miles from the villages, but United Nations officials said they did not know if the peacekeepers there were aware of the attack as it occurred. A United Nations military spokesman, Madnoje Mounoubai, said information was still being gathered.

The F.D.L.R., which began as a gathering of fugitives of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, has grown into a resilient and savage killing machine and an economic engine in the region.

NY man finds prayer balloon sent from Pittsburgh

An upstate New York man says his family has been praying for a Pittsburgh boy after finding a note attached to a balloon that says the child needs a new heart.

Chris Kormanyos is building a home in Messena, N.Y., near the Canadian border and about 400 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

He says a green balloon drifted down onto his driveway Saturday. A note attached read, “We love Zach, we want your prayers to bring him a new heart. Please send a prayer to Zach in Pittsburgh. Pass it on.”

Nothing about the boy is known, other than his first name.

Kormanyos told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he and his family have prayed for the boy.

‘Forget the pizza parties,’ Teens tell churches

“Bye-bye church. We’re busy.” That’s the message teens are giving churches today.

Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.

“Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook,” says Barna president David Kinnaman.

“Sweet 16 is not a sweet spot for churches. It’s the age teens typically drop out,” says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, which found the turning point in a study of church dropouts. “A decade ago teens were coming to church youth group to play, coming for the entertainment, coming for the pizza. They’re not even coming for the pizza anymore. They say, ‘We don’t see the church as relevant, as meeting our needs or where we need to be today.’ ”

“I blame the parents,”who didn’t grow up in a church culture, says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan.

His megachurch would routinely take 600 teens to summer church camp, he says, “and many would be forever changed by that experience. But this summer we don’t even have a camp.

“Remember, 80% of kids don’t have cars. Their parents could be lazy or the opposite — overstressed and overcommitted. If parents don’t go to church, kids don’t, either.”

Don’t forget the overcommitted teens themselves, the recession and growing competition from summer mission trips, says Rick Gage of Go-Tell Youth Camps, based in Duluth, Ga.

Registration fell 22% in 2009 but stabilized this summer with 2,000 middle- and high-school teens at five camps in four states. Attendance peaked in the late 1990s at 5,000 teens, Gage says.

Chris Palmer, youth pastor at Ironbridge Baptist Church in Chester, Va., says its youth group enrollment slid from 125 teens in 2008 to 35 last winter.

He pulled participation back up to 70 this year by letting teens know “real church, centered on Jesus Christ, is hard work,” Palmer says. “This involves the Marine Corps of Christianity. Once we communicate that, we see kids say, ‘Hey, I want to be involved in something that’s a little radical and exciting.’ ”

Rainer agrees. He says teens today want Scripture, they “don’t want superficiality. We need to tell them that if you are part of church life, you are part of something bigger. The church needs you, too.”

But first, they have to find the kids.

Sam Atkeson of Falls Church, Va., left his Episcopal church youth group not long after leaving middle school.

“I started to question if it was something I always wanted to do or if I just went because my friends did,” says Atkeson, now 18. “It just wasn’t really something I wanted to continue to do. My beliefs changed. I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian anymore.”