Accessibility links

Breaking News

East: Soul-Searching -- Western Missionaries Attract Mistrust, As Well As Believers (Part 3)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign missionaries have fanned out across the former communist nations. Many represent Western denominations that stress evangelism, but Islamic clerics are seeking new adherents, too. In the third of a four-part series on religious freedom in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that the missionaries attract new souls, but also a great deal of mistrust and opposition.

Prague, 3 may 2002 (RFE/RL) -- People across Eastern and Central Europe have grown accustomed to the sight of pairs of earnest young men in dark suits knocking on door after door in urban neighborhoods.

Many doors remain closed to these missionaries. Many of the doors that do open slam shut almost immediately. At the occasional door that remains open, one of the team starts a conversation that sounds like this one -- described recently by Mormon missionary Ronald Wagstaff, a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, who is currently doing missionary work in the Czech capital Prague.

"Hello. We're representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am Elder Wagstaff, and this is my partner, Elder Glauser, ("elder" is the title used with all Mormon missionaries) and we're here in the neighborhood. We live here in Prague, and we're just trying to talk to people today about us, what we believe in, and if we could share a message with you."

Most faithful male members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- Mormons -- voluntarily devote two years of their lives to doing such missionary work around the world. They are, effectively, salesmen -- offering a controversial product.

"We can have everlasting life, eternal life with our families."

And they receive training like that of any other salespeople. Wagstaff, who has lived for months in the Czech Republic, submerged himself in two months of intensive Czech-language training before coming. The trainers supplied him and his colleagues with skillful answers for the objections they would most likely encounter.

Theirs is a hard and often thankless task. In the countries in transition from communism, Mormon missionaries have been jailed, deported, beaten, and spat upon.

One Mormon missionary worked up what sales professionals call "close rate" statistics. He found that, on average, a Mormon missionary will make 800 contacts to find 15 prospects, of whom one will actually become active in the church.

Both the people and the governments of the former communist nations differ in their attitudes toward missionaries. In the Czech Republic, missionaries operate with relative freedom. In Russia, where proselytizing is openly and deeply resented by the dominant Russian Orthodox Church, Russian regional governments variously regulate religious groups.

And then there's Turkmenistan. Felix Corley is editor of the London-based Keston News Service, which specializes in documenting the state of religious freedom in communist and postcommunist nations.

"Turkmenistan, without question, has the most restrictive religious policy of all the former Soviet republics. All religious groups apart from the Muslims and the Russian Orthodox are, de facto, banned. Believers of all other faiths, including Protestants, Jews, Lutherans, [Roman] Catholics, even the Armenian Church, are prevented from functioning. People are being fined, beaten, imprisoned, detained, harassed."

The approach that missionaries take, of course, influences how they are accepted. A native of Tajikistan recalls a visit from Jehovah's Witnesses missionaries that he received when he was a student in Berlin. His traditional Tajik culture, he says, required him to greet the strangers and invite them in for a cup of tea. He told them he was a practicing Muslim and had no desire to change religions. He says the missionaries overstayed their welcome by several hours and had to be pressed to leave.

He says they returned the next day and gave him a pamphlet that he considered an attack on Islam. He says he ended the interview with these words: "Either leave within three minutes, or I will call the police."

In Albania, where 70 percent of the people are Muslim, 20 percent Albanian Orthodox, and 10 percent Roman Catholic, tolerance for religious diversity is traditional. Schoolteacher Lejla Kruja tells RFE/RL that she welcomes an occasional missionary visit. She says, however, their religious mission is unimportant to her. Although she appreciates their piety, she says she welcomes them more as an educational resource. It's a chance, as she puts it, "for my kids to practice their English."

Ivan Matanov, former head of the Directorate for Religious Affairs for the Bulgarian Council of Ministers, says that in Bulgaria, it is the people, more than the government, who affect religious newcomers. He says the Bulgarian public retains negative attitudes that have yet to be overcome.

Matanov also says foreign missionaries often bring on the troubles themselves. "I think some of the new denominations are to be blamed, too. Because -- let me put it this way -- they haven't done their homework. They come to a country unprepared, without enough knowledge of it and begin to pursue their goals aggressively, which of course triggers negative public reactions."

In some places, the reception given Western religious groups is capricious. The volunteers and officers, or ministers, of the Salvation Army devote most of their energies to sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry, and visiting the elderly. The religious services they offer seem almost incidental.

All over Russia, the Christian denomination has been able to register and to provide its services with little hindrance. In Moscow, however, it has run into unrelenting hostility from the city administration, at one point narrowly heading off confiscation of an estimated $1.5 million in real estate.

The Keston Institute's Corley says a significant distinction to be made is whether a religious organization comes to a location upon invitation from believers already there, or whether it simply moves in of its own volition.

"It is important to distinguish between people who have been invited by local religious groups to serve them -- for example, [Roman] Catholic priests who are working among Catholics in Siberia, let us say, or in the Caucasus or wherever -- and people who have unilaterally decided that they will go and they will set up a church somewhere or they will set up a religious community in a town they have never been to before. And often, when they arrive, they do not actually know anyone there."

The Russian Orthodox Church, however, regards any Roman Catholic missionary activity as insulting. Igor Vyzhanov is the spokesman for Orthodox-Catholic relations at the Moscow Patriarchate: "[Our two churches] have many things in common. Looking back into the past, at the relations we had after the second Vatican synod in the '70s and '80s, I can say that then we were able to establish a theological dialogue. We discussed our similarities and differences. Everything was fine, and the Catholic Church called us its sister church. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, when they understood that in our country there was a religious gap [that needed to be filled], and when they saw that with the [new] democratic institutions, religious freedom was allowed, the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward us changed. In word, we are still sister churches, but they send missionaries here. And this is very strange. This is not a fraternal relation. It is something incomprehensible and insulting. [The Roman Catholic Church behaves] like Russia is a pagan country."

Still another distinction lies between those organizations whose missions are unmistakably religious and those whose goals are open to question. The Church of Scientology, for example, is often accused of being a money-making enterprise in the guise of a religion. And in many Muslim countries, foreigners pushing their own particular style of Islam arouse suspicion.

"There is a special sensitivity about Iran. Iran really stepped up its work in the former Soviet republics in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, and many governments have been very, very nervous about that, believing that the missionaries were as much conducting subversive political activity as purely religious activity."

Corley says some governments and organizations try to distinguish religious groups by pejoratively labeling smaller, newer ones as "cults" or "sects." He says this is a subjective and inherently biased exercise. Most observers, he says, prefer neutral terms such as "religious bodies" or "denominations."

(Alban Bala of RFE/RL's Albanian Unit and Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu contributed to this report.)