Some US religious militants adopt trappings of real war

Taking up arms in the name of religion is hardly a new idea in human history. In a current American manifestation of this historical irony, a number of religious or church-affiliated organizations in the United States are training their members in weapons use and military tactics.

Several private paramilitary groups have either been started by churches or use churches and Christian symbols as part of their operations.

some law-enforcement agencies are concerned about the possession and use of firearms by at least two religious organizations in the US -- the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and The Way International.

Leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, factions of which in the past year have held paramilitary training in at least two states (Texas and Alabama), continue to cloak their attitudes and activities in statements about defending "white Christians." The KKK long has been associated with an important religious symbol -- the cross, often left burning by the Klan on the property of blacks in an effort to intimidate them.

Today, part of the small but apparently growing phenomenon of private paramilitary training by Americans uses the Bible to justify training to kill.

The Christian Patriots Defense League (CPDL), a paramilitary group, was formed several years ago by The Christian Conservative Churches of America, a small sect with branches mostly in the Midwest.

Asked if there was any conflict in a church forming a paramilitary organization, Harold Leib of Clay City, Ill., president of the church group, said no. In Louisville, Ill., the CPDL trains members in weapons firing, often preceeding the drill with a lecture in the church's chapel.

In Wisconsin, an armed vigilante-type group known as the Posse Comitatus has formed churches that some law-enforcement officials criticize as tax dodges. They are not real churches, says Mike Saleski of the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Justice.

Some Posse members have deeded property to one of two churches members have set up: Life Science Church and Basic Bible Church. They then claim tax exemption for those assets and, in some cases, declare themselves paupers and seek public assistance.

Posse members are urged by the group to arm and stockpile food to survive pending national doom. But the group's problems with state officials tend to be over local issues, such as Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulations on land use.

"We've been fighting the DNR for over 10 years," says Mrs. Donald Minniecheske, wife of one of the Posse leaders, who lives in Tigerton, Wis.

According to Mr. Saleski, Posse members are armed with rifles, shotguns, and pistols. He adds, "My understanding is they have guerilla maneuvers." They also make their anti-semitism "very clear," he says.

Membership estimates vary. Michael Bauman of the Milwaukee Journal, coauthor of an investigative series about the Posse, says it has a statewide minimum of "several hundred." But Saleski doubts there are more than 100 "hard core" members, of whom "10 or less" cause most of the trouble.

The Posse previously was active in a number of Western states, including California, but most of its activities now appear to be limited to Wisconsin.

In California, Attorney General George Deukmejian is concerned about what he describes in a report as the "phenomenal growth of paramilitary groups and cults" in the state.

One of the groups that his staff is most concerned about is the Hare Krishna movement. Last year police raided a ranch in northern California run by a Krishna leader. They were looking for stolen property. What they found, says Lt. Jeff Marham of the Lake County sheriff's office, was "a large supply of arms." These included AR-15s (a semi-automatic rifle), shotguns, and "several thousand rounds of ammunition," Lieutenant Marham told the Monitor.

"That was an isolated thing," says David M. Schiller Jr., assistant director of public affairs for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He said the Krishna leader who was preaching to people at the raided farm about preparing for a coming war has been "censured" by the movement's governing board.

Krishna members, except monks, are allowed but not encouraged to have weapons; monks are not permitted to have them, said Mr. Schiller. It is the policy of the movement to obey the laws of the land, he said.

But California Organized Crime investigator Terry McInnees is not convinced. Some elements of the movement are "most heavily armed," she told the Monitor.

Another religious group whose use of weapons has raised questions with some law-enforcement officials is The Way International.

Most students at The Way's college at Emporia, Kan., have been taking a state course in firearms. Asked why, a college spokesman said it was an optional program to qualify for the state hunting license.

The spokesman, Kenneth Suddeth, added that the training was to help students "overcome the fear of firearms." He said the course did not involve any outdoor shooting.

But Kansas Fish and Game Commission official David Gentry told the Monitor that only about "5 percent" of the The Way students who took the course applied for a hunting license.

The state course does not involve weapons firing. But a reporter for the Emporia Gazette, acting on a tip, was able to witness an estimated 300 Way students firing shotguns and rifles in a rural area.

This newspaper has obtained a copy of items "required" for training in The Way. Included is "a rifle or shotgun (handgun also, if desired)."

"The community [of Emporia] is not quite sold on the fact that the whole student body would be interested in firearms training," says Mr. Gentry.

Students at other colleges in the area take the hunter safety course, but not on the same "mass scale," says Daniel Andrews, the local sheriff.

In Gunnison County, Colo., site of a camp for Way members, sheriff Claude Porterfield told the Monitor "there are some investigations" of The Way going on. He would not comment further.

One possible explanation for The Way's heavy emphasis on weapons comes from the Rev. Roger Daly in Kensington, N.H. Associated with the American Family Foundation's research of cults, Mr. Daly has counseled a number of ex-Way members who have left the organization.

"The arms training [of The Way] fits with the process of . . . conversion," he contends. It is a desensitizing mechanism that renders the person more pliable by the leadership of the group.

Some ex-Way members, he says, have told him they were urged by Way officials to arm and be prepared in a paramilitary way to survive the "anarchy" that will come due to a collapse of society.

Next: legal constraints on paramilitary activit y

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