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Witchcraft in Focus at Arctic Rendez-vous

Witchhunts came to an end in Europe hundreds of years ago but thousands of people around the world are still being persecuted, a subject academics will delve into at a witchcraft conference in Norway's far north this week.

Some 60 international experts will gather in the tiny Arctic town of Vardoe, home to the worst of the Norwegian witch trials in the 17th century, on Thursday for three days of lectures and talks on witchcraft in ancient and contemporary societies.

"Witches and people accused of being witches are no longer persecuted in the West, but they are still frequently persecuted in Africa, Mexico, India, Indonesia and Malaysia," one of the conference organisers, historian Rune Blix Hagen of Tromsoe University in Norway, told AFP.

"In these countries, more witches have been killed in the past 50 years than in Europe" during the 16th and 17th centuries when 50,000 people were burned at the stake, he said.

As in the past, the alleged witches are most often scapegoats singled out by their communities as responsible for illnesses, disasters, poor harvests, bad weather and other misfortunes.

According to humanitarian organisations, in the Democratic Republic of Congo thousands of handicapped or HIV-positive children have been labelled "child witches" by self-proclaimed Pentecostal pastors and thrown onto the streets, sometimes killed.

"The main reason is ignorance, the need to find a scapegoat," said Riitta Leinonen, another organiser of the conference.

"In Africa it is mainly women and children who suffer from witchhunts. The men are less vulnerable because their social status is more solid," she said.

While witchhunts gain ground in some parts of the world, sorcery and witchcraft are making strides in the West, in particular in Britain, Canada and the United States where the neo-pagan Wicca religion with influences from Shamanism and Druidism is incr easingly popular.

"Those who practice witchcraft today in the West believe they are following a certain art form that was on the verge of dying out. They focus on positive magic or healing techniques," said Hagen.

Beyond the relatively limited circle of Wiccans, witchcraft is also benefiting from the Harry Potter effect, the bestseller series written by British author JK Rowling.

The adventures of the apprentice sorcerer, which have been translated into 64 languages and sold more than 325 million copies, and television shows like "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "Charmed", have pushed the once-occult practice into the entertainment sphere.

"The Harry Potter phenomenon shows that there are also positive, and not only malicious, forces in sorcery and that innocent magic can be a good thing," Leinonen said.

Experts from Australia, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States will take part in the Vardoe conference.

The meeting will primarily focus on three themes: "Witchcraft in Literature and History", "Torture, Persecutions and Human Rights" and "Witches, Shamans and Demons."


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