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Reputation for racism taints church's welcome

The Easter weekend, the holiest time on the Christian calendar, will bring to Clearwater what many will consider an ungodly event: A meeting of an Idaho church group that believes white Europeans are the true Israelites and Jews have conspired to control the American economy.

Among those scheduled to speak: a tax-protesting minister from Missouri, a Holocaust revisionist from Idaho and a Nebraska pastor whom one human-rights activist describes as "a hardcore racist and anti-Semite."

America's Promise Ministries, of Sandpoint, Idaho, has been linked to a series of bombings in the Pacific Northwest in 1996. But its pastor said Friday the group was not involved.

"We're good people. We're Christians," pastor Dave Barley said. "We're promoting the Christian Gospel, which I think is a benefit to anybody of any race, of any nation, of any community."

Why is the group meeting in Clearwater? "Florida is a nice place. We like to visit there, and that's the end of the story," Barley said.

Tampa Bay religious leaders were shocked to learn of the meeting.

"Holy cow! They're having their conference here?" said Roy Kaplan, director of the Tampa office of the National Conference, which seeks to strengthen relationships among religious groups. "They have a right to have their conference. I just wish they would go somewhere else."

America's Promise Ministries will meet next Saturday and Sunday at the Holiday Inn Select, 3535 Ulmerton Road. About 100 people are expected, hotel general manager Richard Maslar said.

Maslar said the hotel was not aware of the group's beliefs when Barley booked the room, using the name Gideon's Outreach. Maslar plans to honor the reservation.

"It's just another group that's having a meeting here, as far as we're concerned," he said.

America's Promise Ministries is the outreach arm of the Lord's Covenant Church, the Idaho congregation of which Barley is pastor. Barley said the church "believes like any other fundamentalist church out there. . . . We believe in salvation for all races, and that no man can be saved except through Jesus Christ."

Although church members believe that northern European whites are the Israelites described in the Bible, Barley denied that the church preaches racism or anti-Semitism. Asked if he thinks there is a conspiracy among Jewish people to control the government _ a commonly held belief among so-called "Christian Identity" groups _ Barley said, "I do believe there is a conspiracy among Jews to control the money system, yes."

Coalition for Human Dignity, a Seattle organization that monitors hate groups, said that the Lord's Covenant Church is more malignant than Barley lets on. Among Barley's associates is Richard Kelly Hoskins, whose book, Vigilantes of Christendom, forms the basis for the Phineas Priesthood, according to CHD research director Robert Crawford.

"The Phineas Priesthood is an honor that is bestowed on a Christian Identity believer who commits a racist or anti-Semitic or anti-gay murder," Crawford said.

Hoskins' book is available through America's Promise Ministries' World Wide Web site for $20.25, but Barley denied that his church has anything to do with the Phineas Priesthood.

"I've never been to a Phineas Priesthood meeting, and I've never heard anybody call themselves a Phineas priest," he said.

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Church leaders in Tampa Bay said they were not inclined to disrupt the Christian Identity meeting.

"I would not ever go on record as saying that a group doesn't have a right to meet and do its own business," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He invited Barley and his followers to join the effort "to reconcile and to heal _ with equal justice for everyone."