Alternative religions: Paganism and prejudice

A march in London yesterday demonstrated the enduring popularity of polytheistic faiths. But adherents continue to come up against ignorance and distrust

Dressed in a green velvet coat and wearing a crown of ox-eye daisies over his emerald-dyed hair, Mike, a solicitor from Hertfordshire, was at pains to preserve his anonymity.

The lawyer was one of 700 people attending the Pagan Pride march in central London yesterday to demonstrate that the polytheistic faiths of ancient times are alive and well in Britain.

Paganism is now the eighth largest religious grouping in the UK with some 40,000 people selecting it as their faith, according to the 2001 census.

The Pagan Federation of Great Britain, which represents many of the faith groups from Wiccans to Druids, estimates the number of believers at between 50,000 and 200,000.

The Prison Service announced last year that pagan inmates would have the same rights to worship as adherents to Christianity, Islam or Judaism.

But for those attending the march - headed by a Jack in the Green, a walking antler-adorned bush representing the fertility and renewal of the Celtic season of Beltane - the pride was tempered by resentment of the prejudice and distrust that surrounds paganism.

An Essex schoolteacher was suspended from his post in 2000 when he revealed that he was a "witch" and coven member as well as the Pagan Federation's national youth manager.

Mike, who was watching his two young children dancing in a fountain at the heart of Russell Square to the beat of a band calling themselves the Pentacle Drummers, said: "I've been a pagan follower since university. It embraces the subjects we should really be concerned about - humanity's attitude to the Mother Earth we all come from.

"But if you walk into the office and say, 'Hey, I'm a pagan', they all assume you are a devil-worshipping baby killer. There is an enduring suspicion and distrust which, if it was directed at Hindus or Jews or Muslims, would probably be a criminal offence."

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