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America's Violent Underbelly

The head of the World Church of the Creator said his group's rhetoric of racial hatred could not have been a motive for the shooting spree by a former member.

Styled as a religion, the Church of the Creator is run by aspiring lawyer Matt Hale from his parents' home in a middle class neighborhood of East Peoria.

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press from his office - a room where an Israeli flag serves as a doormat and swastikas adorn the walls - Hale insisted that members of his church follow the law.

"I've always encouraged our members to be legal. I've certainly never encouraged violence," Hale said. "People have their own free will. They do what they please."

On Sunday, police said Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, linked to the death of two men during a two-state shooting spree that targeted minorities, shot himself and later died.

Smith, 21, was a criminal justice student at Indiana University when he paid $35 in dues to become a member of the church from June 1998 to May 1999. Smith didn't renew his dues, but his dormitory address is still listed as an Indiana contact on the hate group's Web site.

Newsletters and other church literature advocate a white racial holy war on "mud races," blacks and Jews, to further the expansion of the white race. Most group literature also includes notices that violence is not condoned.

Hale said blaming the shootings on the church was "the same as people accusing the Pope of being behind all those abortion clinic bombings."

Police and the Anti-Defamation League, however, have linked the church to violence. Members were convicted for the beating death of a black sailor and investigated for conspiracies to bomb gay, black and Jewish institutions on the West Coast.

Rev. Jesse Jackson
"Some of the hate literature and the calls to action on their Web site really walk a very fine line between just ignorant speech and inciting harmful actions, violent conduct," said John Fernandez, mayor of Bloomington, Ind., who was briefed on Smith and the church by the FBI.

To Harlan Loeb, counsel for the ADL, the World Church of the Creator is all about "gutter-level racism and bigotry." There is no church building, no physical presence beyond Hale's Web site and his home office.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow Coalition who has made a career out of fighting racial injustice, said Monday that the holiday weekend shootings and organizations like Hale's show the "violent underbelly of hatred" in America.

"Hate crime is real. It is violent and it must be stopped,"/b> Jackson said on CBS This Morning.

Speaking from the White House, where he was about to embark on a four-day trip with President Clinton, Jackson said of the shooting spree, "It says that in our racial fears, they're turning to violence.

"While we celebrate our freedom and prosperity - the president is taking new initiatives across America hailing prosperity - just under that, we have the most homicides of any nation on earth. Just under that, we're the most violent nation. We make the most guns and bullets. We shoot them. We make the most bombs and we drop them. We glamorize violence, the mass media the most."

The World Church of the Creator was founded in 1973 by Ben Klassen, a former Florida state lawmaker born in the Ukraine and raised in Canada.

After church members were convicted of the murder of the black sailor in Florida prompting the victim's family to file a lawsuit seeking $1 million from the church, Klassen sold off group property and swallowed four bottles of sleeping pills to kill himself in 1993.

Thought leaderless and defunct since Klassen's death, the organization has undergone a revival since Hale was elected Pontifex Maximus, an ancient Roman title meaning "supreme leader," on a Montana ranch.

In a special report on the organization, the Anti-Defamation League called the reappearance of Klassen's group under Hale's leadership a "disturbing development."

"While the newly resurrected COTC might be small in numbers, the organization is compensating with an aggressive barrage of mailings and recruiting efforts," the report states.