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The LDS Church marked a symbolic milestone Sunday in its global growth when its highest official, President Howard W. Hunter, and other church leaders gathered in Mexico City to organize the church's 2,000th stake. Similar to a diocese, a stake is a geographical unit that incorporates several congregations.

That the stake was created within Mexico City highlights the fact that much of the recent growth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been in Latin America.About 2.7 million Mormons, or nearly 31 percent of the church's 8.7 million members, live in Mexico and Central and South America, according to the church's 1993 statistics, its most recent. In 1980, by contrast, the church had about 700,000 members in that region, or about 15 percent of its 4.6 million members worldwide.

A leading LDS official and two academic authorities offered several reasons for the growth, including the effectiveness of Mormon missionaries and the broad social changes in historically Catholic Latin America that have also allowed conservative Protestant churches to gain millions of con-verts.

In a telephone interview Friday from Mexico City, Elder Lino Alvarez, president of the church's Mexico South Area, said that the work of a growing number of native-born missionaries and the church's emphasis on the family were drawing converts. "One of the factors that attracts people to our church is the great emphasis we place on family values," he said. "We are living in Mexico and throughout the world with the great problem of the disintegration of the family."

Elder Alvarez added that the church has done best in urban areas, particularly among working-class and middle-class people. "The places where the church has the most success in Mexico are Mexico City, Puebla, Monterrey, and Merida, which are large cities," he said.

In gaining converts in developing nations like those of Latin America, the church has also benefited from the social and demographic changes related to the shift to market economies and the growth of cities, said an authority on the church, Richard Bushman, a professor of history at Columbia University.

"My general feeling," said Bushman, himself a member of the church, "is that the church is able to get to people in areas where they themselves are going through some kind of unsettling social transition, which makes them open to a new religious orientation and joining a new community."

Drawing a parallel with religious change during the Industrial Revolution two centuries ago, he said that the church was reaching "the same group that the Methodists appealed to in England," the growing industrial and middle classes.

Still, LDS growth in Latin America is not unique. For two decades, the region's religious landscape has been undergoing a change marked by the emergence of non-Catholic minorities, particularly evangelicals and Pentecostals.

For example, from 1970 to 1993, the number of people in Latin America and the Caribbean who were members of Assemblies of God churches grew from about 2.2 million to 16.5 million, said Juleen Turnage, a spokesman for the Pentecostal denomination, which has its headquarters in Springfield, Mo. There are now more members in Assemblies congregations in Brazil than in the United States, she said.

The LDS Church has also grown significantly in nations where it has built temples, said Jan Shipps, a professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Within Mormon life, temples are important because they are where essential Mormon doctrine is taught and church ordinances are performed.

The church opened its first Latin American temple in 1978 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. From 1983 to 1986, it opened five others, in Buenos Aires; Guatemala City; Mexico City; Lima, Peru; and Santiago, Chile. Recently, ground was broken for another in Bogota, Colombia.

Shipps said church membership had also increased because earlier converts had children. "There's something of a critical mass in Mormonism, with its emphasis on the family and many children," she said.

Church officials declined to provide statistics from individual countries comparing conversions with natural increase. But they said that worldwide in 1993, the church baptized 304,808 converts and 76,312 children born to Mormon parents.

In Mexico, Elder Alvarez said he believed that the number of conversions heavily outweighed the rate of natural increase among members. "We have a number of young people - teenagers, young adults - who join the church each year," he said.