Christian influx in Mongolia

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — Shaun Rosemann and Drew Wallace call it their "portafont."

Drew Wallace, center, and Shaun Rosemann talk to 80-year-old monk Daritsay Dorjsuren in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia.

Associated Press

The two young LDS missionaries took along the plastic baptismal font, the size of a large bathtub, when they went to rural Mongolia looking for souls to save.

The clean-cut, blue-eyed pair are part of an influx of foreign missionaries engaged in a struggle to win believers in this traditionally Buddhist country of 2.4 million people.

For nearly a year, the two missionaries taught English by day and held weekend services in a rented discotheque. They filled the portafont and baptized dozens of new Mongolian converts by immersing them in it.

"We had the services in the morning and when we left, the room became a bar again," said Rosemann, who has moved back to the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator with Wallace to continue their missionary work.

A decade has passed since the end of 70 years of officially atheist communism, and today visiting preachers find a ready audience as Mongolians search for spiritual meaning amid worsening poverty.

Seventeen U.S. Protestant mission boards have 60 workers in Mongolia, according to the new "Mission Handbook" from the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. No U.S. Roman Catholic missionaries are listed.

More traditional Mongolians complain that foreign missionaries threaten their Buddhist traditions.

"We are worried that Mongolia will become a Christian country," said Jamynsharaviin Ganzorig, one of 800 monks at Gandan Monastery, Mongolia's biggest.

Western churches help the poor in a society where communist-era social services have collapsed.

"The missionaries give money and food to poor people and draw them to their church," Ganzorig charged. "Some missionaries are generous, but most just want to get members. It is hard to tell how many are real Christians, because many just go to church so they can study abroad."

But a native evangelical Protestant pastor, the Rev. Yadamdorjiin Bold of the Crown of Love Church, calls Buddhism a scourge that his homeland should discard.

"Buddhism makes people lose their motivation," said Bold, 26. "Before Buddhism came we were fierce warriors and ruled many countries."

Many Mongolian Buddhists are disillusioned with a religion that has monks chanting services in Tibetan, a tongue no ordinary believers understand. Christian pastors, by contrast, preach in Mongolian.

Others have lost faith in monks who have a reputation for drinking and ignoring their vows of celibacy.

"They recite scriptures as a business," said Adrian Feldman, an Australian Buddhist monk who is trying to teach Mongolians their forgotten traditional faith.

An exception is Betub Danjai Choinkhorlon Monastery, which maintains strict discipline for its young class of about 35 monks. It was set up by a former Indian ambassador in a two-story traditional building with whitewashed walls and ornately painted wooden eaves.

Prime Minister Nambariin Enkhbayar has endorsed this and other Buddhist projects, including a planned Buddhist TV station. "In order not to lose our identity we need to keep the Buddhist traditions," he said.

Among the most active foreign workers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This distinct faith, based in Salt Lake City, is now building a five-story center in Ulan Bator.

"Satan's temptations are everywhere in Mongolia," said recent convert Dolomjaviin Zogselmaa during a visit by Wallace and Rosemann to the canvas tent where she lives in Ulan Bator.

"My family joined the church to avoid smoking, fighting and drinking," she said.

Wallace, 21, from Dallas, and Rosemann, 20, of Salt Lake City, spend their days visiting LDS converts at home. Between visits, they chat with taxi drivers and students, urging all to attend services at their downtown tabernacle.

Dressed in neatly pressed black suits and wearing plastic name badges, the missionaries attract curious questions. Mongolian law does not allow them to speak about religion unless first asked.

"The reward is when you see a change in a person. You see a light turn on and you know they found the love of God and Jesus Christ," said Rosemann.

The LDS Church holds Sunday services next door to Feldman's Buddhist center. New members are submerged in a blue tile tub each Friday, adding to a congregation that has surpassed 2,000 members.

"Mongolia should become a Mormon country," said Sister Ankhtuya, a former Buddhist nun who converted three years ago after seeing a movie on Jesus' life.