LDS in Kyrgyzstan could boost aid, says Walker

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Lt. Gov. Olene Walker said Thursday that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is interested in working in Kyrgyzstan and that the church's presence could bring more humanitarian aid to the former Soviet republic.

"Wherever they [the church] have missionaries and churches, they also bring in a lot of humanitarian aid," Walker told journalists during her visit to the capital, Bishkek.

"Kyrgyzstan may be an area for such humanitarian efforts to be increased."

She said there were "at least" six followers of the Mormon church in this predominantly Muslim nation in Central Asia.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov said that the presence of the LDS Church in Kyrgyzstan would only be beneficial given that the church has strong family values.

"It seems to me there is much we can learn; it doesn't mean that anybody will be forced to accept any religion," said Aitmatov.

Walker's comments about Utah's dominant religion followed similar comments a day earlier by LDS Apostle Russell M. Nelson, who was among guests invited to celebrate Kyrgyzstan's Independence Day.

The lieutenant governor was responding to reporters' questions about the church's intentions and possible humanitarian aid after Nelson's remarks were carried in local Kyrgyzstan media reports.

Walker's spokeswoman, Rian Williams, said her boss's comments could be misconstrued if not placed in the context of the church leader's earlier comments and reporters' queries.

"Otherwise, it looks like we sent her on a little [Mormon] mission or something," said a chagrined Williams. "Obviously, his [Nelson's] purpose there is different than the lieutenant governor's."

Walker was spending a few days in the country as a guest of the government after completing state business in Russia involving the Moscow-Utah Youth Games launched this summer by Gov. Mike Leavitt and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Walker, who is in line to become governor if Leavitt wins U.S. Senate confirmation as head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is a member of the Utah-based LDS Church. She is not, however, an envoy or official representative of the 11-million-member faith, said church spokesman Dale Bills.

Nelson, who oversees church activities in Eastern Europe, traveled separately to the country at the invitation of the government along with Elder Douglas L. Callister, a member of the church's Second Quorum of the Seventy and LDS area president.

Bills confirmed the two discussed "the church's humanitarian program," but said he had no further information about the content of their discussions with government officials or reporters.

On Wednesday, Walker and Aitmatov signed an agreement to expand ties between Utah and Kyrgyzstan.

Walker said Thursday that Utah would continue humanitarian and student exchange programs with Kyrgyzstan.

"We think this is a strong beginning of a very lasting friendship," Walker said.

She also had meetings with Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev and other senior government officials.

Kyrgyzstan boosted its ties with the United States when, in fall 2001, it allowed the U.S.-led antiterror coalition to set up a base at a civilian airport near Bishkek to support operations in nearby Afghanistan. More than 1,500 troops from several countries are deployed at the Ganci base.