BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – An anti-Semitic church formed by white supremacists has abandoned its neo-Nazi imagery, such as swastikas, to make its message more palatable, a change that a leading Jewish group called an attempt to "sanitize hatred."
The group banned the use of Nazi uniforms, red arm bands and similar regalia because they were an instant turnoff to people who might otherwise be open to the church's teachings, including the belief that white Anglo-Saxons — not Jews — are God's chosen people in the Bible.
"We don't like the swastikas. We don't like the negativity," said Jonathan Williams, the leading pastor of the United Church of YHWH. "The majority of people see all that as pure evil."
Williams was formerly involved with Aryan Nations, which was once the best-known neo-Nazi organization in the United States. It was led by Richard Butler, who was acquitted in 1989 on charges of attempting to create a new Aryan country through assassinations, robberies, guerrilla bands and a race war.
In 2000, the group had to give up its compound in Hayden, Idaho, after Butler lost a $6.3 million judgment for an attack on a mother and son.
After Butler died in 2004, followers relocated to Talladega in east Alabama, and earlier this year renamed themselves the United Church of YHWH. The initials are a reference to Yahweh, the Hebrew word for God.
Bill Nigut, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group was attempting to "sanitize hatred" by appearing to be more mainstream.
"We find it very disturbing. They can begin a conversation now with people they could not have before," he said. "They can get in the door."
Other organizations still use the Aryan Nations name, complete with Nazi symbolism. But the ADL describes the one in Alabama as the most direct descendent of the group headed by Butler.
The FBI said it tracks such organizations but declined to comment on the United Church of YHWH, which says it also has contacts in Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
"In general terms, the FBI is aware of any type of white-supremacist group," said Paul Daymond, an agency spokesman in Birmingham. "We stay abreast of what's going on as far as those groups are concerned."
Williams' group held a meeting in September in the north Alabama town of Athens that attracted a handful of followers. Photos on its Web site show only seven men and a child.
It also maintains a Web site that rails against Judaism: "We detest the Jewish faith as it goes against all Christian tenets."
Williams says the church doesn't have a building but meets in the homes of followers. The group only has a few core members, he said, but it has "several hundred" adherents worldwide.
It does not advocate a separate nation for whites, as Butler did, but followers believe members of different races should not date or marry.
"Not dating someone doesn't mean hating them," Williams said. "The only people we hate are people who hate Christ."
The group describes Jews as "enemies of Christ," and the ADL official said it doesn't matter that the group no longer uses Nazi symbolism.
"He might say he doesn't like the Nazi stuff, but he is still anti-Semitic," Nigut said.