Dressed in a green robe with a dagger at his side, a barefoot Andre Cunningham bows his head, crosses his arms and invokes the name of the Horned God.
''Witness our rites and bless our magic,'' he calls out. Before him is an altar covered with a black cloth, candles, incense and salt crystals.
Cunningham is a witch. He is also an Army second lieutenant stationed at Fort Bragg. He is 23 and is in the 51st Signal Battalion.
Cunningham is the high priest in the Coven of the Dragon Warriors, a group of Army witches who want Fort Bragg to allow Wiccan worship services and study groups on post.
At a recent outdoor ceremony in Spring Lake, solemn-looking soldiers dressed in ankle-length robes stood inside a nine-foot circle bordered with candles. They raised their swords and praised their gods.
The coven wants to hold similar ceremonies on Fort Bragg. The notion has some pastors upset and has left Fort Bragg officials choosing their words carefully when discussing the witches in their ranks.
The Wiccans, also known as witches, practice Wicca, a pagan religion whose practitioners say is older than Christianity and which is often referred to as witchcraft.
There are about 10,000 pagans in the military and an estimated 200 to 400 at Fort Bragg, according to the Military Pagan Network, an international support group for military pagans that is based in Columbia, Md.
The Wiccans say they are good soldiers and patriotic Americans.
''But we change God bless America to goddess bless America,'' said Laurie MacNeill, a former Army sergeant and the coven's high priestess.
Members of the Coven of the Dragon Warriors, which named itself after the 18th Airborne Corps' symbol, the dragon, say they have no place to worship off post. The 10-member coven has outgrown its high priestess' small Spring Lake apartment where members meet for lessons, worship and fellowship.
The Wiccans say they have just as much right to worship on the 42,000-soldier post as do Christians, Jews and Muslims.
And that is stirring controversy among Fayetteville's religious leaders, who say the post risks straining its relationship with the community if it allows witchcraft on Fort Bragg.
''I would hate to see anything hurt that relationship or tarnish our image,'' said Dr. Bruce Martin, senior pastor of Village Baptist Church, one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in Fayetteville.
''They have denied Satan is involved and that is an untrue denial,'' said Dr. Ralph Richardson, chancellor of Carolina Bible College. ''This is not some kind of harmless religion. It is extremely dangerous.'' Fort Bragg officials said the post understands the sensitivity surrounding Wiccan worship on the installation, and said its position is consistent with Department of Defense policy.
The Army has regulations on everything from sideburns and wristwatch style to fingernail length -- and Army regulations on Wicca are clear.
''We respect the right of military members to practice their faith consistent with the requirements of good order and discipline, and health and safety standards,'' said Maj. Scott Ross, a Fort Bragg spokesman.
''The military services do not show preference for religious groups or particular religious beliefs.''
But it is up to individual posts to decide if Wiccans and other religious groups can worship there. Fort Bragg officials said they have not received a formal request from the Wiccans and will not comment on the coven's desire to worship on post.
Members of the coven, formed in January, said they sent a memorandum in April requesting to be sanctioned on Fort Bragg. Post officials said they did not receive the letter.
The Wiccans said they will resubmit their request.
Although Wicca is a religion recognized by federal courts, as well as by the military, Fort Bragg's Wiccans say many worship in hiding, fearing persecution from others and reprimands from their superiors. ''They are too afraid of their commanders,'' said MacNeill, who left the Roman Catholic church 15 years ago to become a witch. ''There is a lot of fear.''
Wiccans want to change that. They also want other Wiccans to feel comfortable ''coming out of the broom closet,'' MacNeill said.
Coven members say they want to be a sanctioned group on post so they can aid other military pagans and act as a resource for chaplains who have questions about pagan soldiers' religious accommodations.
''We want to be allowed to worship like anyone else,'' MacNeill said. ''But a lot of people don't want to listen to us.''
Fort Bragg officials said the post won't take any action until it receives the proper paperwork. Lt. Col. Gary Keck, another post spokesman, said the request would be treated like those from other religious groups.
The coven is asking for a room to hold classes and a place outside for its ceremonies, which include full-moon festivals and rituals to mark the changing of the seasons.
John Machate, coordinator for the Military Pagan Network, said he believes Fort Bragg will have little choice but to allow Wiccans on post. Machate said 11 installations and one Navy ship already allow pagan worship and Fort Bragg needs to follow suit.
The issue of Army witches surfaced nationally recently with a story on a group at Fort Hood, Texas. The coven is sanctioned on post, a move that some national Christian leaders and U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, have denounced.
With the controversy at Fort Hood still smoldering, Fort Bragg commanders and chaplains are careful about how they discuss Wiccans in their units.
Sgt. Nathan Linley, one of the founding members of the coven, believes he knows why.
''If they approve of it, people may think they are helping evil into the world,'' he said.
But Linley and others say the group is not evil and does not worship Satan. They say the Horned God of Wicca is not the devil, but their male deity. His horns, sometimes depicted as antlers, represent animals in nature.
Wiccans worship male and female deities. They say they are an earth-loving people who promote peace and harmony by believing in the divine power in nature.
''We don't endanger anyone or anything,'' MacNeill said. ''All we want is to be able to worship in peace.''
The Rev. Michael Fletcher of Manna Church, a nondenominational congregation, says Wicca is not just a sin but an abomination.
''The Christian church sees Wicca as part of one large circle that is inherently demonic and condemned by scripture because it seeks to find power in a source other than God,'' Fletcher said. ''I hope Fort Bragg makes the right choice and does not give them access as a religion.''
Ross, the Fort Bragg spokesman, said, ''We respect other peoples' religious rights and the First Amendment. That's one of the reasons we wear the uniform and go to work every day.''
But Martin of Village Baptist Church said the military has been selective in upholding First Amendment rights.
Martin said that if the Department of Defense can ban the sale of pornographic magazines on post, as it did last year, it can also ban what he and others believe is a dangerous religious practice.
Like the banned magazines, Martin said, Wicca ''runs counter to the good morals and reputation of the Army.''
Martin said witchcraft is another example of soldiers from other parts of the country bringing trouble to Fayetteville. He cites past hate crimes committed by soldiers that made national headlines.
''We are still a part of the Old South and the Bible Belt,'' Martin said. ''It's imperative that we bring our influences on people who come here rather than allowing outside influences to affect us.
''I hope that the churches and Christians of the Fayetteville area would exercise such influence upon these people that they would abandon their deceptive ways.''
Not many Army chaplains will denounce Wicca, at least not publicly. It's a chaplain's job to support the religious and spiritual beliefs of soldiers in his unit. And, in the Army regulations, that includes Wiccans.
Although Wiccans are mentioned in the U.S. Army Chaplains Handbook, many chaplains have had little or no contact with Wiccans and know little about the religion.
''It's new to them,'' said Col. Frank Whalen, the head chaplain of Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps. ''And they may be uncomfortable with it since it is outside their knowledge factor.''
The Fort Bragg Wiccans said they are working on a pamphlet to distribute to chaplains on the principles of Wicca and the basics of witchcraft.
Wiccans partly blame Hollywood for giving witches a bad image.
''People tend to forget that Glinda the Good Witch helped Dorothy find her power from within,'' said the Rev. Selena Fox, founder and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin, the oldest Wiccan church in the country.
''What they tend to remember about the Wizard of Oz is the Wicked Witch of the West.
''We're not out to get Dorothy and her little dog,'' she said. ''We're out to help Dorothy and her little dog.''
Fox, who assisted Pentagon personnel in updating the section on Wiccan religion in the Army Chaplains Handbook, said that Wicca is one of the fastest-growing religions in the Army and that tolerance is needed.
''Jesus said love your neighbor,'' said Fox, a former Southern Baptist.
''Jesus did not say, love your neighbors unless they are witches.''
A knife in the barracks
Witches who wear dog tags and combat boots say they have their own set of problems to deal with.
Linley, who is a sergeant in the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, said that when his command came across his witch Web site, Chaplain Gregory Williamson, a major in the 4th Psychological Operations Group, took him into his office. ''He told me he didn't believe in what I was doing even if it was constitutionally protected,'' Linley said. The chaplain asked him if he did bloodletting and sacrifices and if he had weapons in his room, Linley said.
Williamson is on leave. U.S. Army Special Operations Command's public affairs office issued a statement that said in part: ''The command has looked into the alleged incident and is confident that in no way did Chaplain Williamson discourage any soldier from practicing his beliefs.''
Not all Wiccans have had problems. Kate Cline, a labor and delivery nurse at Womack Army Medical Center, said her colleagues have been supportive of her Wiccan faith. ''A lot know,'' she said.
But misunderstandings are common. Pvt. Dave Alexander is a 20-year-old witch in the 403rd Transportation Company. His ritual knife was taken from an altar in his barracks room during a room inspection.
MacNeill, the high priestess, met with Alexander's company commander and explained to him that the knife is used for ritual purposes and is not used to harm anyone.
The command has been understanding, MacNeill said, and the knife was returned. But Alexander has to keep the knife out of the barracks.
''To him it was a religious artifact,'' said Lt. Col. Jeff Miser, commander of 7th Transportation Battalion. ''But to the Army, living in the barracks, that is a knife.''
Miser said he is responsible for the health and welfare of his soldiers. He said his battalion includes a broad mix of cultures and religions.
Miser said he has told his company commanders to be tolerant of different religious practices -- as long as they are within the ''good order and discipline'' of the Army and are in compliance with Army regulations.
''They're all cool about it,'' said Alexander, whose dog tags list Wiccan, under religious preference. ''My whole chain of command knows."
As for soldiers in the barracks, Alexander said: ''Some are curious and others don't want to know.''
His friend and fellow witch, Pfc. Dan Cole, a 19-year-old who is also in the 403rd Transportation Company, said he was ''religiously confused'' until the age of 15. He discovered witchcraft in books at a bookstore. ''I've been practicing seriously ever since,'' he said.
Although his parents didn't make him attend church, Cole said he grew up in what he calls a ''very strong Protestant household'' in Walden, N.Y. ''There were crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary everywhere,'' he said. ''It's like, ugh. You get sick of it.''
The coven's black cat, brooms, swords, daggers, pentagrams and wands are not to be feared, members say.
''Are you a Satanist? Do you do sacrifices? Do you have wild orgies and dance naked in the moonlight?'' asked MacNeill, the high priestess, her eyes widening. She said those are questions she is asked often. And the answer, she said, is always no.
She said she'll answer any question, just not her age.
As the matriarch witch she is parent, teacher and spiritual director of her young coven.
She said the magic spells she casts are for healing, prosperity and protection. The Wiccans said they do not practice black magic, and do not cast curses, hexes, jinxes or love spells.
She equates her magic and spells to blessings.
''It's like a focused prayer,'' said MacNeill, who carries a long wooden staff that she calls a wand.
At a recent Saturday ritual, the Wiccans cast spells for world peace and the protection of deployed soldiers.
Before the ceremony, some members touched the coven's black cat for positive energy.
Wiccans worship in what they call circles. It is a temple to the goddess, and is a protective, sacred space. The circle is created by ''casting a circle'' with a sword. Once the circle is cast, the witches say, negative energy cannot get in.
With a broom, Alexander, the young private, ''swept away'' negative energy from the circle's perimeter, which was lined with candles.
Inside the circle, the witches, all barefoot and in robes, raised their swords and faced the north, south, east and west, drawing energy into the circle.
MacNeill extended her arms before the black-clothed altar in her back yard and invoked the goddess to protect troops and heal others.
Behind her at the edge of the woods was buried what is called a ''witches' jar.''
It was filled with dirt, seashells, incense and matches. The items represent the elements of earth, water, air and fire. The buried jar, the witches say, protects the coven.
The ceremony ended with the Wiccans' version of Holy Communion: wafer cookies and a sip of wine from a single wine glass.
The circle was broken with the slice of a sword.
Throughout much of the ceremony, Alexander's eyes were closed and he shook.
He later said that he was filled with the power of the gods.
''It's the most unbelievable feeling ever,'' he said. ''I've never felt the same since I came into the craft.''
Some principles of Wiccan belief
Glossary of terms and symbolsWicca: Witchcraft
Witch: Men and women who practice Wicca
Warlock: Traitor. A witch banished from a coven. Male witches do not refer to themselves as warlocks. They view the term as an insult.
Cowan: Any person who does not follow the Wiccan religion.
Pentagram: The symbol of witchcraft. A five-pointed star with one point uppermost. Each point representing one of the following: earth, fire, water, air and spirit.
Pentacle: A pentagram within a circle.
Magick: Definitions vary but include: the science of control of the secret forces of nature and the comprehensive knowledge of all nature. Books of magick contain spells and rituals. Wiccans spell it with a "k" to distinguish it from "magic," which they refer to as sleight of hand used by entertainers.
The Book of Shadows: A personal book of rituals, rites, cures and magick.
High Priestess: The female leader of a coven. She represents the Goddess.
High Priest: The male leader of a coven and the assistant to the High Priestess. He represents the Horned God.
Coven: The basic organization of witches. Consists of at least three people and rarely more than 13 who meet regularly for rituals, training or "magickal workings." A coven is generally run by a high priest and high priestess.
Esbat: A ritual ceremony occurring during a full moon, involving magic and complex training. Esbats are dedicated to the Wiccan Goddess.
Sabbat: Called the Great Rituals where witches celebrate the changing of the seasons and their relationship with nature and the Gods. Sabbats are generally dedicated to the Horned God.
The Circle: A sacred space known as "casting a Circle." The consecrated space where a Wiccan ritual is held. A circle can be cast anywhere and is usually 9 feet in diameter.
Handfasting: A Wiccan wedding
Blessed Be: The traditional words of welcome, blessing, and farewell used by Wiccans.
Athame: The magic knife of a witch. A traditional consecrated ritual knife.
Baculum: A wand used in rituals.
Besom: A broom used in rituals.
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