Christian extremism raises alarm

A trial resumes today for a Slavic man charged with killing a gay man in Sacramento, Calif.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A hate-crime trial reconvenes Friday in a case that's dividing Sacramento and drawing attention from organizations that monitor extremists.

Alex Shevchenko has been arraigned for a hate crime tied to the assault and eventual death of Satender Singh in July. According to prosecutors, Mr. Shevchenko and Andrey Vusik taunted Mr. Singh in a park because they thought he was gay. Mr. Vusik eventually threw a punch that toppled Singh, dashing his head, they charge.

Gay leaders in Sacramento say the incident followed several years of escalating tensions with some Slavic immigrants.

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"The gut feeling of the [gay] community is that preaching among the local Russian evangelical community is breeding hate and that something would happen. And Satender was the something that happened," says Ed Bennett, a gay Democratic activist.

While Slavic leaders say their community is being unfairly scapegoated for legitimate political protests and deeply held religious beliefs, some monitors warn that an emerging group called the Watchmen on the Walls may be fomenting a dangerous atmosphere within the ranks of Slavic immigrants here.

"This group has engaged in extremely vicious antigay propaganda, and oftentimes it is that kind of propaganda that is taken by hate criminals as permission to go ahead and attack," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report," which tracks hate crimes nationwide.

The international Watchman on the Walls emerged within the past couple of years, forged by two longtime antigay activists – Scott Lively and Kenneth Hutcherson of the US – and two newer Slavic leaders, one in Sacramento and one in the Baltic nation of Latvia.

Mr. Lively has a following among some Slavic protesters here with his controversial book, "The Pink Swastika," which argues that homosexuals played a formative role in Nazism.

The Watchmen is a Christian movement that doesn't teach hate or seek out violent followers, says Mr. Hutcherson, who is a pastor in Washington State. "God's word does not allow us to hate. It tells us to stand up for righteousness and call a sin a sin," he says. He rejects, however, the idea of loving the sinner while hating the sin. "The Bible says when a sinner will not separate himself from a sin then he is condemned with it. The one thing I'm trying to do is get heterosexuals out of the closet. We are the majority," he says.

Videos of Watchmen conferences abroad suggest some leaders are less modulated, and their audience less against violence. One video shows Lively giving a version of Singh's killing different from reported facts, including the notion that Singh was undressing in front of children. The audience cheered twice as Lively recounted the punch and the death of Singh – a reaction Lively rebuked, saying: "We don't want homosexuals to be killed. We want them to be saved."

"What sets them apart is the rhetoric that they use," says Jim Burroway, editor of the Box Turtle Bulletin, which monitors gay hate groups. "They use the imagery of war, of us being in a war against them, of militancy. They really do speak the rhetoric of theocracy," he says.

Monitors like Mr. Burroway and Mr. Potok claim no direct connection between the Watchmen and Singh's death.

"As things stand right now, we certainly aren't contending that the Watchmen on the Walls are behind the killing," says Potok. But talk can have consequences, he adds, and Watchmen views are spread in Sacramento by two founders: Alexey Ledyaev, a pastor from Latvia, and Vlad Kusakin, host of a Russian-language radio show.

Confrontations between the gay and Slavic communities have erupted only within the past few years. Some menacing protesters now wear Watchmen T-shirts, says Nate Feldman, a gay activist who's gathering film footage of the protesters. Mr. Feldman says that during the 2006 pride parade in Sacramento he was spat on and shoved by a group of antigay demonstrators.

Other gays and lesbians tell of protests held outside private homes or protesters recognizing them and rattling off their names and addresses. This holiday season, protesters sang Christmas carols outside major retailers while displaying and handing out antigay messages.

Slavic leaders estimate that their Sacramento community numbers around 100,000. They are mainly ethnic Ukranians, Moldovans, and Russians – many of whom gained entrance to the US as Christian asylum seekers after the Soviet Union collapsed. The Russians tend to be Baptist, the Ukranians, Pentecostal.

Many grew up persecuted in the Soviet Union, watching as school officials slighted their children's progress. Some now feel that US educators look down on their Christian children, say Slavic leaders.

Several Slavic leaders including Roman Romaso, executive director of the Slavic Assistance Center, say the street protesters are a small minority.

"As much as I know Watchmen on the Walls I don't agree with them because they call out people in the street and some are not acting adequately," says Mr. Romaso. "My understanding of how to fight is to work with the legislature and build coalitions."

One gay Russian-speaker – who requests anonymity for personal safety – expresses dismay that the death of Singh hasn't galvanized more moderate Slavic voices. The "mythologizing" of gays as the enemy continues in the local Russian-language media, he says.

"It's all about gays and their agenda. Gays are some evil group that is so organized. I didn't know that I belonged to this very powerful group of people," he says. He acknowledges that having Russian-speakers come out of the closet would help change views. "But who is going to do that? I would expose myself to so much hate from people who don't know me."

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