Thankful for the opportunity, an LDS Church official in Kazakhstan presented tenets of his faith to the central Asian nation's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, a tough former Communist labeled by detractors as corrupt and ruthless.
General authority Paul Pieper, who represents the area for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spoke in both Kazakh and Russian as he outlined support of traditional family values, education and the authority of local governments as well as the faith's taboos against alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs.
"You don't drink?'' Nazarbayev interrupted. "There are places in Russia where they live to be over 100 and drink like fish."
Then, apparently sensing Pieper's discomfort, Nazarbayev chuckled and added, "I hope you understand that's a joke.''
The striking July 2009 exchange was captured in one of nearly 100 confidential State Department cables mentioning Mormons abroad, among a trove of more than 270,000 U.S. diplomatic documents released by the controversial whistle-blower website, WikiLeaks. Reflecting the Salt Lake City-based faith's scope, the LDS-related cables span church activities in 40 countries across Africa, Europe, North and South America, the Middle East and Asia.
Only one on Libyan-related terror attacks in 1986, including the bombing of a Mormon meetinghouse in Venezuela is considered secret, though many of the rest are officially deemed confidential or classified.
The cables paint a fascinating picture of a far-flung faith coping with obstacles to its religious mission and of U.S. diplomats pressing on behalf of Americans and human rights around the world. The documents recount U.S. efforts in dozens of countries to address bureaucratic limits, tax inequities, political antagonism, hostile rumors and even physical threats against LDS Church personnel.
According to an expert at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, advocacy for religious freedom has gained importance within the State Department under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. Before that, the issue sometimes lost traction as embassy officials pursued more egregious human-rights violations such as torture or human slavery, said BYUlaw professor Cole Durham.
The law, among other things, authorized U.S. diplomats to respond to religious-freedom violations in other countries and required embassies and consulates to report annually on the status of the issue in host nations.
"Religious freedom has always been a little bit of a back-burner issue,'' Durham said, "but if you leave it on the back burner too long, it explodes."
Many of the cables mention Mormons in the context of their ability to worship and proselytize on foreign soil. Others reference the church and its members only in passing or as part of work-a-day monitoring of news accounts. A few deal at length with LDS logistics and concerns, restrictions on its congregations abroad, and, in some cases, emergencies confronting missionaries in the field.
U.S. Embassy officials in Guyana mobilized in September 2009 when police detained and expelled 41 Mormon missionaries without formal charges on orders from the South American nation's Ministry of Home Affairs. The arrests which diplomats said caught even Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo by surprise were officially blamed on discrepancies in their work permits.
Privately, a top criminal investigator was more blunt about the government's intent. "The Minister wants them out," the investigator reportedly said.
Their passports confiscated, the missionaries including an elderly couple were held in jail all day while police "failed to provide them with basic necessities such as water, food and toilet paper," a Sept. 3, 2009, cable detailed. Though the Mormons were freed at Jagdeo's behest, U.S. diplomats called the episode "deeply disturbing."
Embassy officials pushed back in a series of high-level meetings aimed at cutting through work-permit red tape andremoving quotas on LDS missionaries allowed in Guyana, decrying the rules as "arbitrary."
Similar patterns emerge in cables from around the world, with U.S. diplomats pressing foreign governments over encroachments on religious liberty affecting Mormons as well as evangelical Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and other faiths.
In response to a request for comment on this story, the LDS Church issued a statement calling religious freedom "a very important issue" and "a bedrock for many of the freedoms Americans enjoy."
"We are concerned about the erosion of this freedom as are many others," the statement said, "and are grateful for the efforts of those who seek to protect it."
A State Department spokeswoman in Washington refused to comment on the contents of the WikiLeaks cables, but said embassy officials place their highest priority on ensuring the welfare and safety of expatriate U.S. citizens whatever their faith, while also advocating globally for a range of basic human rights that includes freedom to practice religion.
In dealing with governments abroad, department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said, "we can't make them change their laws on an American citizen's behalf, but we constantly advocate for rights we believe are universal, unalienable rights."
The WikiLeaks documents reveal State Department officials as often deeply knowledgeable about LDS activities indicating a steady flow of information between church leaders and diplomats and a gathering of U.S. intelligence through media reports and local contacts.
In one cable dealing exclusively with Mormon affairs, a Shanghai-based diplomat offers detailed information on member numbers in Shanghai, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan; the nationality mix of the Shanghai LDS congregation; weeklymeetings; meeting site infrastructure and security; and proscriptions from the pulpit against proselytizing among Chinese nationals.
And, in a policy reference echoed in several other memos, thesame January 2010 cable also offers a top LDS official's approach to local authority.
The comment, from Mormon Shanghai International District President Stayner B. Lewis, came in light of a Chinese announcement loosening restrictions on meetings by religious groups not officially recognized by the government. The edict by the Shanghai Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) amounted to one of the first official documents issued in mainland China giving expatriate members of a religious group official permission to gather.
Lewis, the cable said, "not only wanted to toe the line, as the authorities have drawn it, but he wanted to stay well within it, so as to prove to the Shanghai RAB that the Mormons are trustworthy."
Church leaders showed similar deference in Vietnam, according to a 2003 cable penned in Ho Chi Minh City. At the time, Mormons based there sought to open an LDS branch (a small congregation) as they worked through registration requirements for official government recognition for their faith.
"By carefully adhering to the parameters of whatever permission they receive from local officials," the cable said of LDS leaders, "they hope to convince the GVN [government of Vietnam] that they are not a threat to the country's political stability."
Other cables show Mormons working diligently to surmount constraints.
When Slovakia decreed that some religions had to file 20,000 signature petitions to secure official recognition, LDS officials organized a monthlong, 30-city effort and swiftly gathered the signatures, according to a cable issued in September 2006. But their efforts faced opposition.
Police threatened Mormon signature gatherers with fines in the western Slovakia city of Trnava seat of the Catholic archbishop in Slovakia and kicked them out of the city. And in Zilina, in the northwest, "nuns staged protests urging passers-by not to sign the Mormon petition," according to the Sept. 26, 2006, cable.
"The Catholic Church in Slovakia," the cable noted, "had issued a statement urging its members not to sign the petition."
U.S. diplomats showed similar sensitivity, cables show, to caustic statements made against Mormons by religious authorities of orthodox Christian sects in Egypt, Bulgaria and Russia.
Embassy officials in Armenia highlighted an odd, unattributed article published in an opposition newspaper, which claimed that "Mormons and Pentecostals had established ties with 'well-known criminals' who protected the 'sects' interests' presumably against the government." Diplomats chased down various reactions to the article, apparently trying to understand its implications, according to an April 3, 2006, cable.
They quoted a local LDS leader as saying the piece was "unequivocally false" and an attempt by the Armenian government to discredit the religion in apparent retribution for reporting an incident in which two Mormon missionaries claimed they were assaulted by police officers.
Excerpts from cables
"The local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while predominantly Vietnamese, also has several expat families from the United States, Japan, Korea and Europe that attend services. The church provides simultaneous interpretation, and all parishioners (foreign and local) take turns giving sermons throughout the year on topics assigned by local leadership. The congregation has reported no difficulties in its blended approach. The church also has blended weekly scripture study courses as well as blended weekly activities for youth at the church."
Issued Dec. 18, 2009, by U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
"LDS finds regulations governing real estate deals problematic. LDS used to have a nice facility in Tyumen but the lease was not renewed and the space was taken over by Lukoil. Six years ago LDS obtained permission to lease space in Samara, completed a renovation, but was never allowed to hold meetings there. More recently, they experienced difficulty securing space to hold a planning meeting for a group of 600. Ten years ago LDS held a similar meeting here in the Urals Cultural Center (a city-owned facility). This year LDS signed a contract with the same facility and paid in advance, but was told two weeks before the meeting that a government facility could not host a religious event."
Issued Aug. 10, 2009, by the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg, central Russia
"There are several Christian denominations which are not officially recognized by the state, but operate under the umbrella of charitable organizations which are registered under the current Associations Law. If the Lower House's version of the amendments prevails, their operations in Jordan could be jeopardized. These denominations include the Baptists, the Nazarenes, the Evangelical Free Church, Assemblies of God, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The Mormons are also currently registered as an association and would be impacted by the amendment as well."
Issued July 30, 2009, by the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan
"Ambassador met with Second Vice President and Finance Minister Pedro Solbes on 7/17/08. The minister acknowledged the serious economic difficulties that Spain was facing. He said that he would review the issue of granting the same tax benefits to religious denominations such as the Mormons as other groups receive. Solbes was also willing to review the 1990 double-taxation treaty between the U.S. and Spain again. He was fully on board with respect to maintaining tough economic sanctions against Iran."
Issued Sept. 19, 2008, by U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain
"The LDS Church (Mormons) have suspended sending new missionaries to Russia, citing the financial and logistical difficulty of complying with new Russian visa regulations. The LDS Church, which currently has an estimated 450 missionaries in Russia, will now rely upon Russian and Ukrainian missionaries in Russia. All missionaries currently in Russia will continue their work here until the end of their assignments, which normally range from one to two years. The LDS Church will maintain its presence in Russia, where it is registered in eight regions covering congregations throughout the country. The LDS Church will continue to advocate for relaxing the restrictions affecting religious and humanitarian workers, and is prepared to resume sending missionaries from North America should this happen."
Issued July 18, 2008, by U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia
"Examples of (most frequently) young Mormon missionaries or Jehovah's Witnesses facing arrest and trial on these charges are not uncommon. Often, the arrests come about after police officers receive a complaint of proselytizing. Frequently, instead of facing formal arrest and trial, missionaries are taken to a police station for an 'identity check,' and are released without charges after several hours. In one recent case, however, two Mormon missionaries were arrested (one of whom was an American citizen) and held in custody overnight. They were placed on trial the next day and although they were acquitted, the ordeal was stressful, frightening and costly. The USG has urged Greece to consider repealing the laws which permit officers to make these arrests or, at a minimum, to take steps that ensure no more persons are arrested under these antiquated legal provisions."
Issued March 31, 2008, by U.S. Embassy in Athens, Greece
Read the cables online
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