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March 27, 2007

UPDATED: Redmond pastor fights U.S. policy toward gays in Latvia

Posted by David Postman at 6:45 AM

(UPDATE: See this post by Eli Sanders about German news reports about Ken Hutcherson telling Latvian officials he was visiting their country on behalf of the Bush Administration. They believed he was an official representative of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

"Yes, he is working as this organization's envoy," said the head of Latvia's parliamentary human-rights committee, Janis Smits.

"He said he was a representative of the office. The ministry of integration should be open to all, so I generally trust people and don't ask them if they have their credentials," added Integration Minister Oskars Kastens. Hutcherson was carrying a file bearing the US coat of arms, he said.

Rev. Ken Hutcherson is using his claimed "special commission" from the White House to work against U.S. policy in Latvia designed to lessen discrimination and violence against gays and lesbians in the Eastern European country.

It's hard to find anyone willing to talk about Hutcherson's relationship to the White House. You'll remember, he claims the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives made him a "Special Envoy for Adoptions, Family Values, Religious Freedom, and Medical Relief." (The claim was first reported and questioned on The Stranger blog, and Eli Sanders has followed the story here and here.) The White House denies that, but won't say any more.

Hutcherson, pastor of Redmond's Antioch Bible Church, said last week he has proof he was deputized. But he has not yet shared the video tape he said will show he's telling the truth. I'm waiting for a call back from him.

The controversy grows out of Hutcherson's visits to Latvia. There he has aligned himself with conservative politicians and conservative religious leaders to combat a nascent gay rights movement. In particular, Hutcherson is upset at what he claims is money the United States Embassy in Latvia has given to a Latvian group, Mozaika, a gay rights organization founded in February 2006.

Details of the funding have been hard to pin down. Mozaika, reached by e-mail, wouldn't say. Anna Reynolds, the group's office manager, wrote:

Thank you for you letter. Yes we have heard of Reverend Hutcherson and his claims. I wonder why he feels the need to come to Latvia to talk. Perhaps no one is listening at home?

As a rule, we don't give out information about our sources of funding. If you have questions about the U.S. Embassy, I suggest you contact them directly.

The U.S. Embassy in Riga won't comment, though it is my understanding that such grants would be public information. A spokeswoman said by telephone:

"I understand your question sir. Unfortunately at this time we have nothing for you. I'm afraid that's it."

And spokespeople at the State Department in D.C. say the question would have to be answered by the Embassy in Riga.

The Latvian newspaper Ritdena reported last week that the Embassy gave Mozaika $956 in July 2006 to help organize events in Riga, and $7,179 in September to publish pamphlets and produce an amateur theater performance designed to fight discrimination against gays and lesbians. The paper said the pamphlets were titled: "Discrimination at Work", "Homosexuality and Healthy Sex (HIV-AIDS prevention)", and "Help - My Child is Gay!"

Hutcherson has complained about the Embassy's work with Mozaika in speeches while in Latvia, in interviews once back home and in e-mails he sends to "Prayer Warriors" among his supporters and parishioners.

He says that supporting Mozaika goes against American values as well as against the wishes of a majority of the Latvian people. In a speech in Riga earlier this month Hutcherson is reported to have said:

Latvia is a Christian country ... and we need to do everything to ensure that even in the European Union it does not loose its principles. It is a holy right of any nation to decide (in) what society to live.

That is from a translation done by ILGA-Europe, a non-governmental organization that represents some 200 gay rights groups. The original report was in Russian on the New Generation Web site. The same report made clear that Mozaika is suspect in the eyes of anti-gay forces in Latvia:

This topic was developed by Cardinal Janis Pujats. He touched upon the subject how Latvia is faced with fact of indoctrination of homosexual culture in widest layers of society. We learned that organisation of sexual minorities Mozaika developed a national programme of tolerance and calling on a state level to educate on civil tolerance, respect towards people of different sexual orientation.

By joining in an alliance with the New Generation church and conservative politicians in Latvia, Hutcherson is working against U.S. policy. The Embassy has helped organize events with Mozaika to promote tolerance of lesbians and gays — as has the embassies of the UK and Sweden — and the ambassador and Embassy staff have worked to protect gay rights activists when violent anti-gay protests broke out in Riga last year.

The United States has documented anti-gay activities in Latvia. A report on Latvia's 2006 human rights record was released March 6 by the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. It confirms what gay activists say, that Latvia has seen "societal violence and occasional government discrimination against homosexuals."

Under the "Freedom of Assembly" section, the report shows the government treated a pro-gay event differently from other gatherings:

Numerous demonstrations took place peacefully and without government interference during the year. However, in July authorities denied a permit for a gay pride parade on grounds of unspecified security threats to the marchers. Parade organizers attempted to host a private event at a local hotel as an alternative to the denied march. This event was disrupted by protesters who opposed homosexuality (see section 5).

And in Section 5, "Other Societal Abuses and Discrimination," the report offers more details:

Societal violence and discrimination against homosexuals was a problem. On July 19, the Riga city government, after coming under pressure and criticism from various political parties and religious groups, denied a permit for a gay pride parade. The reasons cited for the cancellation were security considerations, although the specifics were never made public and all court hearings were closed to the press and public. On July 22, parade organizers attempted to host several private functions as alternatives to the cancelled march. Demonstrators opposed to homosexuality surrounded and harassed participants outside these events, throwing eggs, shouting aggressive insults, and dumping human excrement on them. Police arrested 14 people for public disorder. In late August the Riga Vidzeme District Court and Riga Central District court fined seven opponents of the gay pride events charged with causing public disorder. In addition all seven faced prosecution for inciting public disorder. These cases were outstanding at the end of the year. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission all voiced their concern during the year over the failure of authorities to protect the gay pride event participants as well as the imposition of a ban on the originally planned parade.

During those protests, Mozaika leaders were in touch with U.S. Embassy personnel who helped monitor the protest. Gaston Lacombe, chairman of the Mozaika board, wrote a report about the events.

As the gay rights activists were surrounded in a Riga hotel by angry protesters from the anti-gay group No Pride, Lacombe was regularly on the phone with someone he identifies as "our friend from the American Embassy." Lacombe wrote:

He told me that he had seen large black jeeps, with tinted windows and No-Pride signs on them, patrolling the old city, driving slowly, as if looking for something. He said it looked very scary, like something from a film and we guessed they were looking for any sign of LGBT people or supporters in the center of the city.

The organizer of the pro-gay rights event had to be whisked away by armed guards. Others snuck out of the hotel, as protesters hurled eggs and excrement. Lacombe wrote that the "American Embassy had to interfere to protect American citizens" and Swedes contacted their embassy for help.

In the meantime our friend from the U.S. Embassy called me, this time to say the Prime Minister's office was accusing my colleagues from other LGBT organizations in Latvia, Imants and Gabriels, for announcing they were going to arrange an illegal march in Vermanes Park. The Prime Minister's office was very angry and condemning. There was an article on the portal about this illegal march. Within 2 minutes I found Imants and Gabriels, and they assured me that they never advertised anything such and that the news was false. I called our friend at the U.S. Embassy right away, and that situation was cleared. It seems that it was provocation of some sort, but that is still not clear.

The Embassy also has played a more formal role in helping to organize events during the pro-gay rights "Friendship Days" last July and the U.S. ambassador spoke to the Latvian government about security concerns. That's according to an article in the newspaper Diena. This translation comes from Latvian blogger Peteris Cedrins:

The U.S. Embassy in Latvia will participate in the organization of the Friendship Days being held by sexual minorities this week, and Ambassador Catherine Todd Bailey met with the Minister of Interior, Dzintars Jaund┼żeikars, (Latvia's First Party) on Monday with regard to security concerns related to the parade.

(Cedrins has written critically of the anti-gay forces in Latvia and the New Generation church that is aligned with Hutcherson.)

Hutcherson sent an e-mail to the Prayer Warriors March 9

I will be having a difficult meeting with Ambassador...I just found out that our Embassy in Latvia has been supporting gay groups monetarily to come into this country.

Continue to pray for strength and stamina.

On March 12 he wrote:

It went extremely well with American embassy ... they aren't very happy right now, because I had to lay it out, they are not representing American values well.

Hutcherson didn't have much to add when we spoke last week. He said that Embassy officials told him that they only fund established organizations, but that Mozaika received a grant within months of forming. He said he told an Embassy official "you are still a visitor over here" and no help should have been given because a majority of Parliament opposes gay rights.

"They turned around and gave the money and that almost started a riot in the country. ... We have some real serious problems in that embassy, and we want a full report."

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