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Church was pushed, pulled during 'time of trouble'

Published April 1, 2006 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SANTIAGO, Chile - Though the LDS Church was founded in 1830, Mormon missionaries did not arrive in Chile until the mid-1950s, when several American business leaders with headquarters in Santiago petitioned for them.

The first proselytizing efforts were modestly successfully, especially in and around the capital city. But the political upheavals of the 1970s helped and hurt the church's outreach in certain quarters.

"It was a time of trouble," LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said during his recent speeches here, noting that he was in Chile on the day in 1970 when leftist Salvador Allende was elected president.

Business and political leaders fought Allende and his socialist policies, creating economic crises and chaos.

Washington dispatched CIA operatives inside Chile to work against Allende and many Chileans thought Mormons were among the operatives, says Francisco Jara, a Santiago journalist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Mormons in Chile.

Not so, Jara says.

"Mormon leaders and missionaries helped by teaching anti-Communist doctrines but they didn't serve as spies or covert agents."

Antagonisms culminated on Sept. 11, 1973, with Auguste Pinochet leading a military coup that toppled Allende's government. Pinochet then ushered in 15 years of repression during which he systematically eliminated his enemies through abduction, torture and execution. Catholic bishops spoke out strongly against the abuses and were soundly punished by the dictator.

This was the height of the Cold War and Mormon leaders lined up behind Pinochet, whom they saw as an opponent of Communism.

LDS President Spencer W. Kimball gave the dictator a copy of the Book of Mormon and called him, "one of the great leaders of Latin America."

Robert Wells, a Mormon executive assigned to the South America in the 1970s to establish friendly relations with conservative governments, reportedly said the coup was an "an act that served the purpose of the Lord."

Wells, Latin American representative for First National Bank, said of Pinochet: "If he had to shoot anyone, the great majority deserved it since they were terrorists."

The Pinochet regime responded to this support by calling the Latter-day Saints "true Christians who stayed clear of politics," Jara says, and recognizing the church's contribution to the "spiritual and social well-being of the nation."

And, more important for the church's growth, Pinochet lifted restrictions on Mormon missionaries, allowing them to operate freely in the country.

That, in turn, made the church a target for his opponents on the left.

Though no one was injured, between 1984 and 1990 there were 193 attacks on Mormon chapels, according to University of Utah anthropologist David Knowlton.

Most of the attacks came from guerrilla groups who opposed Pinochet and operated in the same neighborhoods as Mormon missionaries, Knowlton says.

Some chapels were painted with slogans such as "Yankee go home" and plastered with posters denouncing imperialism.

After Pinochet was defeated in 1988, the LDS Church began to re-establish connections with the left-leaning leaders who then came to power.

Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland had numerous meetings at the Chilean "White House" with President Richard Lagos, who was elected in 1999. Lagos' wife, Luisa Duran De Lagos, visited Utah in 2004.

In addition to improving its political relationships, the LDS Church has made extensive contributions to the country's social programs.

It gave 300,000 blankets and 13,000 quilts to the homeless, built homes, provided dental hygiene and gave money to a burn center, among other things.

The church gets little recognition for these gifts and usually works with well-established non-profits.

Still, the effort seems to be paying off, says Jara.

"Today the relationship between the leftist government and the LDS Church is excellent," he says.

"Mormon leaders should have done this 40 years ago, but they didn't."

pstack@sltrib.com