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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A leader of a Canadian polygamist group arrested for violating laws against plural marriages said on Thursday he was a political target and victim of religious discrimination.
Winston Blackmore said he and other members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints deserve the same protection as other religions in practicing their faith.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon church that also has communities in the United States, where it has also run afoul of the law.
Thousands of polygamists "among many different cultures are hiding in plain sight" in Canada, but are not arrested because they are not members of FLDS, Blackmore said in statement.
Canada has had an anti-polygamy law since 1892, but Wednesday's arrest of Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, another FLDS leader in Canada, marked one of the few times anyone has ever been charged under it.
Legal experts have said the case will likely go to Canada's Supreme Court as a test of religious rights.
"To us, this is about religious persecution. Persecution has always been about politics," Blackmore said. "This is not about polygamy."
Police allege that Blackmore is married to 20 women, while Oler has two wives.
The FLDS's North American leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, has been convicted in the United States of forcing underage women to marry older men.
An FLDS compound in Texas was also raided last year over allegations of sexual exploitation of young girls.
The group established a community called "Bountiful" in Lister, British Columbia, in the 1940s, where it is believed to have about 700 members. While it largely shuns contact with outsiders, some members have openly acknowledged for years they practiced plural marriages.
"It has taken three AG's, many special prosecutors, and millions and millions of taxpayers' dollars, almost nineteen years to arrive at the conclusion that Fundamentalist Mormons want to practice the fundamentals of their faith," Blackmore said.
The mainstream Mormon church, which once supported polygamy but now denounces it, has taken pains to distance itself from the FLDS.
British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal said in announcing Blackmore's arrest the law was needed to protect women from sexual exploitation.
Blackmore has been released from jail pending a court appearance January 21. His bail conditions included not performing marriages or getting married again himself.
Reporting Allan Dowd