LDS Church making inroads in Ukraine

Like many other churches that have gained a foothold in the Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continues to grow there, despite residents' suspicion about foreign-born faiths.

The church's premier ambassador, President Gordon B. Hinckley, met with Ukrainian leaders and LDS Church members there earlier this month in a move that not only energized the local membership but apparently left a smile and a warm impression with at least one government official.

During a visit to Utah, Viktor Bondarenko, chairman of the state committee on religious affairs in Ukraine, told the Deseret News through an interpreter on Wednesday that during President Hinckley's daylong visit Sept. 9, the two of them met together twice. "Knowing how much work he has, I can definitely tell he is a very great organizer and he has a great authority as a religious leader.

"I would also definitely say he is a very fun person — and I always like to see when serious organizational and other work is combined with a smile and a good mood. My meetings with President Hinckley leave warmth in my heart."

That impression is expected to serve the church well, as Bondarenko's job is to help various faiths "develop their social structure and connections with the population," including assisting them in organizing major activities or gatherings.

While churches are allowed to lease property in Ukraine on 49-year contracts, some are struggling to find adequate space to build churches and other worship facilities, he said. Land issues don't fall under his jurisdiction, Bondarenko said, but "as far as I know, the LDS Church at this time does not have any problems of receiving land for lease for construction."

Many church members speculated that during his visit, President Hinckley might announce a site for an LDS temple to be built in Kiev. The church announced in 1998 that a temple would be constructed there but has yet to pinpoint a location. "As far as I know the process of receiving land for the temple is being finalized at this time," Bondarenko said, noting that his committee is "trying to assist the church in order to receive the land."

He said the major challenge to date has been the "very large amount of land asked for by the church. I remember that we were talking earlier about 3 or 4 hectares of land, and to find land of such size in a big city is a very difficult task. So I think the search for land itself was the major challenge. . . . I also know there are several areas in Kiev that were provided for different buildings of the church and they are still not built. There is nothing there as of yet."

Significant growth of various denominations during the past decade has created challenges in finding and allocating property for many religious denominations.

"We're trying to assist as much as we can," he said, noting that non-religious organizations are also vying for space, and the cost of land is rising.

Churches are charged "in general, a very symbolic amount," meaning the rates are relatively low compared to what a commercial enterprise would pay.

Bondarenko's visit to Utah this week was organized in June through Brigham Young University's International Center for Law and Religious Studies. He has been accompanied by Viktor Yelensky, editor in chief of the country's Journal for Religious Studies, the only nonpartisan journal dealing with religious issues. Yelensky is also a researcher with National Academy of Science.

The pair have not only been discussing pending Ukrainian legislation, but details for an upcoming religious freedom conference scheduled in Ukraine in October.

Cole Durham, director of the center, said two years ago he invited Bondarenko to attend an annual religious freedom conference BYU holds. Schedules conflicted, but the offer remained and the final details came together in June, he said.

"By coincidence, it turned out to be a little over a week after President Hinckley's visit. The trips were not connected at all." Durham said the center routinely hosts visits by government officials and scholars from around the world who are experts on church and state issues.

Bondarenko said unprecedented religious activism in his nation continues more than a decade after the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Though a majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox, the spread of Protestant, Catholic and other faith traditions has been substantial since the democratic government has mandated religious freedom there.

Some 1,500 religious organizations are being registered every year, he said, noting that during the six-year term in his current assignment, only about five were not allowed to register. But the influx of faiths and creeds has garnered no small amount of suspicion among Ukrainians, who along with others in former Soviet nations have heard about the negative influence" of some sects' practices "on the psychological status of a person.

"So here we receive help from the ministry of foreign affairs in the country — they provide information about those organizations and how they function in other countries. "My committee also looks at documentation and the religious backgrounds of those organizations" with help from the country's Ministry of Health.

Yelensky said social science research shows people are suspicious of religious organizations they don't know much about, noting only a few years ago the LDS Church "was unknown to the population of the Soviet Union and there was a lot of prejudice around the church in those times."

Propaganda still circulates about the church, with some people "convinced that Mormons have polygamy. That's why I think it's very interesting and important to see what the church does to open itself to the world."

Yelensky noted a recent article in a Ukrainian newspaper that mentioned various religions with strange practices that harm people's health. The list "mentioned Mormons as one of them. I sent (the reporter) a brochure about the church that I had and from the brochure he could see Mormons actually have the longest life span among people in U.S.

"By that time, I had been to Utah before so I just recommended to him to actually talk to Mormons themselves and listen to them about their doctrine of a healthy way of life."

Such suspicions are not unique to the former Soviet Union, as several European nations — most notably France — have begun examining the religious practices of various faith traditions in recent years after members of some small religious sects. There was widespread publicity throughout Europe and the former Soviet republics of a mass suicide a few years ago by members of a group called the "Solar Temple," similar to what occurred with the Heaven's Gate sect in California in 1997.

Some academics and lawmakers have called for restrictions or proposed sanctions on missionary and other religious activities as a result.

Religious freedom advocates in the United States and abroad have rallied broad-based opposition to such proposals, and embarked on education campaigns designed to counter what they say are the scare tactics of those who want to restrict religious practice.