When members of a black religious group moved here from Brooklyn in 1993, their purchase of 438 acres of pasture about 10 miles outside town stirred up gossip and some apprehension, but residents were more curious than frightened.
A few years later, with the completion of a 40-foot-high black pyramid on the land that belonged to the group, which is known as the Yamassee Native American Nuwaubians, most neighbors in this small dairy-farming town east of Atlanta scratched their heads and figured it would be best to keep their distance.
But in 1997, when the Nuwaubians declared themselves a separate nation and began issuing passports and organizing armed security patrols of their property, Sheriff Howard B. Sills of Putnam County decided to take a closer look. A copy of a 1993 Federal Bureau of Investigations report he received, linking the Nuwaubians' New York operations to welfare fraud and extortion, also concerned him.
Then, Sheriff Sills learned that the group's spiritual leader, Dwight Z. York, was a convicted felon. Mr. York has admitted he served three years in prison in the 1960's for resisting arrest, assault and possession of a dangerous weapon.
He is known among the Nuwaubians as the Master Teacher Dr. Malachi York, who founded the Nuwaubians sect on a combination of Islamic, Christian and Hebrew teachings. Mr. York says he is an extraterrestrial being from the galaxy Illyuwn. He and many in his group say they expect a spacecraft from Illyuwn to visit Earth in 2003 and to take with it 144,000 chosen people, a number they do not explain.
The front of the compound, which Nuwaubians refer to as the Egypt of the West, contains eight-foot-high statues of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses placed among columns covered with hieroglyphics, and a sphinx and several smaller pyramids about 24 feet in height.
''These are the last days, and we Nuwaubians have created God's kingdom right here on Earth,'' said Marshall C. Chance Jr., president of the group's Holy Tabernacle Industries.
The similarities between the Nuwaubians and the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate sect in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., who committed mass suicide in March 1997, were too close to ignore, Sheriff Sills said. The Heaven's Gate group, like the Nuwaubians, said they believed that a spacecraft would come to save them.
At least 150 people live on the Nuwaubian property, and tensions between Putnam County authorities and the Nuwaubians have steadily increased in the last two years. In the last few months, there have been several standoffs between Nuwaubian guards and the sheriff's department, when deputies were barred from the property. In April, for example, when Sheriff Sills tried to deliver a court order concerning zoning violations, two Nuwaubian guards, wearing 9-millimeter pistols on their hips, stood in front of his car and would not let it pass, Sheriff Sills said.
The confrontations stem in part from three county lawsuits filed in the last year against the Nuwaubians, charging the group with zoning violations and violations of building regulations. The Nuwaubians were operating a large nightclub on their land, zoned for agricultural use, and were planning to open, among other businesses, a health-food store, a bar, a recording studio and a taxicab company.
Mr. York refused to appear in court and was ordered to be tried for contempt of court on Tuesday for not appearing at previous hearings on zoning violations.
He declined to be interviewed.
Over the weekend, thousands of Nuwaubian followers drove by the dairy farms, fruit stands and bait shops of Eatonton to attend the annual Savior Day's Festival at the Nuwaubian compound, which celebrated Mr. York's birthday on June 26. Because Sheriff Sills padlocked some of the compound's buildings, acting on a court order in the zoning disputes, the event, also known as the Djed Festival, was held outdoors, in continual rainstorms.
''It's a utopia,'' said Mr. Chance, who wears a priestly black shirt and pants with a white collar. When asked if he was ordained by any particular denomination, Mr. Chance replied that he was ''ordained and called by God himself.''
That sort of religious fervor has raised concerns among state and Federal officials. Department of Justice representatives from the community dispute resolution offices in Atlanta have been in Eatonton since last Wednesday, trying to bring the county and the Nuwaubians to the same table to reduce tensions.
The conflict in Putnam County, and its potential for disorder, even violence, led Gov. Roy Barnes to call Sheriff Sills last week to discuss the situation.
Last Wednesday, a bench warrant for Mr. York's arrest on contempt of court charges, was withdrawn when Mr. York's lawyer promised that his client would appear in court on Tuesday, June 29.
''There is an atmosphere of tension,'' said Ernie Stallworth, a mediator for the Justice Department. ''The Nuwaubians feel they have been unfairly harassed since they've been down there.''
A lawyer for the Nuwaubians, Leroy B. Johnson, said he thought local, white government officials should be more tolerant of the group's endeavors, but he acknowledged that predominantly white Putnam County might not be the most suitable place for a black religious group to build pyramids.
Driving into the county, motorists see signs inviting people to join the local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the county has an annual 10-kilometer race, once known to locals as the Tar Baby Run in celebration of Joel Chandler Harris, a white native of Eatonton who wrote the Br'er Rabbit folktales.
''There has to be a realization by the Government there that the situation is a powder keg, where the drop of a hat or a miscalculated word can incite violence,'' Mr. Johnson, a former state senator, said in a telephone interview.
At the festival, people from as far as Trinidad and London came to honor Mr. York. Visitors walked the small labyrinth surrounding the main pyramid, praying with tracts written by Mr. York, who has written at least 200 of them.
Many in the crowd were wearing clerical robes and ancient-Egyptian-style headdresses, spoke in bits of Nuwabic, a blend of Arabic and English also invented by Mr. York, who appeared briefly on Saturday, surrounded by five guards and hundreds of admirers.
None of those living on the property, other than a spokeswoman and Mr. Chance, would comment on their organization. Many of the women had shaved heads, with a single braid on the right side, in honor of a Mother Nature-like deity.
The Nuwaubians' move from Brooklyn, where the group was known as both the Holy Tabernacle of the Most High and the Children of Abraham, Mr. Chance said, was driven by rivalries with Islamic organizations in New York that objected to the group's borrowing of several Muslim traditions, he said.
When asked how the group managed to buy its land and finance the construction, Mr. Chance gave a faint smile, and said, ''We attract people who already have something with them.''
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