Christianity's growth divides Mongolians

Ulan Bator, Mongolia - Erdene Otgon Tsagaankhun, one of Mongolia's growing population of young Mormons, has just spent two years trying to spread the word as a missionary -- in the United States.

The 24-year-old is one of around 1,000 young Mongolians the Mormon church has sent to other countries to -- as she puts it -- "go out on the street, in cars, on the bus, and find people to teach about Jesus Christ".

Their existence is a mark of how successful the Mormon church has been at converting young Mongolians since the early 1990s, when the fall of communism brought religious freedom to the traditionally Buddhist nation.

The political vacuum and economic hardship that followed enabled a number of Christian groups to enter the country, providing aid and English language teaching, an attractive mix in the impoverished country of 2.7 million people.

A 2010 government census found 3.4 percent of Mongolians now claim to be Christian -- a small but growing proportion of the population.

Mongolia's peaceful shift to democracy has led to huge social change as the country has opened up its vast mineral reserves to foreign investors, bringing rapid economic growth that has created a growing divide between rich and poor.

Social commentators say Mongolians are looking to religion to provide meaning to their lives after communism.

"Society suddenly opened up and people are empty. They will believe in anything," Baabar, one of the key figures in the 1990's democratic revolution and a well-known social commentator, told AFP.

Buddhism, Mongolia's official religion, is also enjoying a revival after more than 70 years of socialism, during which thousands of monasteries were destroyed and monks killed during communist purges.

However, Luvsandendev Sumati of Mongolian polling organisation the Sant Maral Foundation said most Mongolians saw Buddhism more as a way of life than a religion.

As a result, he said, it is struggling to compete with the aggressive promotion of Christianity.

"Buddhism cannot fill the vacuum of ideology that emerged," he told AFP. "Ninety percent of Mongolians consider themselves Buddhist, but they don't know what it means."

Mormon missionaries have been trying to fill that vacuum since the country opened up to religion. William Clark, an American missionary, said more than 10,000 Mongolians had joined the faith in the past two decades.

In a reversal of traditional roles, the Mormon church -- formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- now recruits missionaries in developing countries including Mongolia to spread the word in the West.

Many are given scholarships to study abroad for two years while they carry out their work, which is conducted in pairs, with each Mongolian accompanied by a local missionary.

But the success of foreign faiths -- and the methods used to achieve it -- are proving controversial in Mongolia.

Reverend Purevdorj Jamsran, one of the country's first Christian converts, said the growing influence of his faith had worried Buddhist leaders in Mongolia and led to harassment of staff at the theological college he runs.

"They are threatened by our growth and dynamism," he told AFP. "They are reviving Buddhism, but at the same time trying to restrict so-called 'foreign' religions."

Purevdorj said 2010 had been the most difficult year yet for Christians in Mongolia.

"I don't see it as religious hatred, but there is a political element. People don't want it (Christianity) to be an official part of society," he added.

Mongolia's political leaders overtly support Buddhism and D. Natsagdorj, a senior Buddhist monk in the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator, said they were monitoring the activities of foreign religious groups.

"These foreign religious people are washing the brains of Mongolians," he said at the Otoch Manramba temple in Ulan Bator, which is being refurbished and expanded thanks to generous donations from wealthy private citizens.

"If they come to Mongolia, they must respect Mongolian culture. If not, they will be told to leave."