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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
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