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Hutterite Sect Hit by Arson

May 8, 1998

LEDGER, Mont. (AP) _ A resentful silence hangs over the wheat fields of Montana’s bountiful Golden Triangle region.

Arsonists and vandals are preying on an Amish-like religious sect known as Hutterites, but their neighbors haven’t evinced much sympathy for the victims. They mutter darkly about the Hutterites, not their tormentors.

Wheat prices are low, the rumblings go. We don’t need competition from people who are buying up our farms to expand, who don’t pay their fair share of taxes, don’t save to send their kids to college, don’t even buy televisions and air conditioners, for goodness’ sake.

``I think they use their religion as a front to hide their grand plan, which is to control a good share of agriculture,″ said one non-Hutterite farmer, who wouldn’t give his name.

The Hutterites originated in Eastern Europe in 1528 and are named after an early leader, Jacob Hutter, who was burned at the stake in 1536. Hutterites immigrated to North America in the late 1800s to escape religious persecution.

There are approximately 41,000 in the United States, mainly on the Northern Plains. Montana has about 5,000 in 54 ``colonies″ of about 100 each.

Like the Amish, they live communally, dress simply and try to live apart from modern society. Unlike the Amish, they embrace technology that helps them farm better. Their farms tend to be large, efficient and prosperous _ often more prosperous than those of their secular neighbors.

When the population at a colony is high enough, the group will buy land for another colony. Members draw lots assigning them to the new colony or the old, and the group splits.

That is what is happening here. Hutterites are building the new Camrose Colony here, on 8,500 acres near the Marias River.

On March 8, an arsonist set fire to a shed full of lumber to be used for housing and other buildings for the fledgling colony. The blaze caused more than $100,000 in damage. The arson followed a rash of vandalism, including damage to vehicles and grain bins.

Undersheriff Dave Robins said investigators have a suspect, but there have been no arrests. The FBI is investigating it as a hate crime. But Robins isn’t ready to label it religious bigotry.

``To me it looks more like jealousy,″ he said. ``Not that they hate the people for what they stand for, just that they’re making a go of property and land that others aren’t able to.″

The Shelby Promoter, the local weekly newspaper, has not editorialized against the violence. ``I think a lot of people up here are quite appalled about what happened,″ publisher Brian Kavanagh said. But he said he has a new editor who has been so busy learning the job that she hasn’t written editorials about anything.

Christine Kaufmann, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, and Mark Nagasawa of the Montana Association of Churches said the absence of any community outrage is troubling.

``I expected people to jump up on this and go, `I can’t believe this is happening,‴ said Nagasawa, whose efforts at organizing a community meeting got a lukewarm response. ``People seemed to understand that they got their property burned and that’s a terrible thing, but `They are buying up our property’ _ and all those excuses come up.″

``There’s been a lot of resentment building up over the years,″ he added.

The resentment often is scarcely hidden.

``They don’t do anything illegal, but they’re tough for an ordinary family to compete against,″ rancher Arlo Skari said. ``They don’t send their kids to college, they don’t even send them to high school. Their wives don’t go shopping. The women have very few rights.″

Hutterites make their own clothes. They don’t have televisions, satellite dishes, air conditioners, or boats. They don’t go on vacations, other than to visit relatives and friends at other colonies.

``A lot of the niceties people seem to enjoy, they take away from the efficiency,″ said David Hofer, a member of a Hutterite community some 50 miles east of Camrose.

Most colonies are nearly self-sufficient, growing vegetables and raising wheat, beef and dairy cows, pigs and chickens.

One rumor circulating through the area is that the Hutterites pay little or no taxes, and thus compete unfairly. Cindy Larson, a Chester accountant who does taxes for several colonies, said that’s untrue.

Hofer said colonies do not pay into Social Security or buy workers’ compensation insurance. But neither do they collect benefits from either program.

Some in the community complain that Hutterites pay higher prices for land than non-Hutterites can afford. Hofer said the Hutterites often have no choice: Given an equal offer from a Hutterite colony and another farmer, a property owner will sell to the other farmer.

``We really wanted to see a single family have our farm,″ said Jan Christofferson, a landowner who sold to the Camrose Colony. ``The offers we got were laughable and hurtful, very insulting. (The Hutterites) were the only ones able to come up with a price.″

Hofer said he hopes the fire was the work of ``a sick individual, not a concentrated, organized effort.″ But he said the Hutterites will continue to buy farms and expand, as children grow and colonies divide.

``How can it be otherwise?″ he asked.

Another Hutterite, Joe Waldner of Camrose Colony, said he is encouraged to know that some non-Hutterite farmers have privately expressed disdain for the arsonist.

``The guy that did this is going to find out there’s more people against him than he thinks,″ Waldner said.

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