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LDS Church's 'front door' policy pays off in Africa

PROVO — An LDS chapel and institute of religion are the only buildings left on a street in Abuja, Nigeria.

Other churches and businesses once occupied the area, but were razed over a four-year span for not complying with zoning laws.

The land is now mostly a national park, but the two Mormon structures remain.

"Why? Because we had all of the papers," said Elder Adesina J. Olukanni, Area Seventy and director of public affairs for the Africa West Area. "We went in through the front door."

That's the only way for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to enter African nations, Elder Olukanni and other presenters said Monday at the 21st annual conference of the International Society at BYU.

Going through the front door means following laws and respecting governments and cultures. The approach helped the church overcome obstacles in Ghana, and more recently helped establish a presence in Southern Sudan.

It would be easy to "plop down" in countries without following legal steps, says David Westerby, former area legal counsel for the church in Africa.

"But the Lord wants us to go in through the front door," he said. "It's for our own protection and our fullest blessings."

Being recognized by a nation requires not just registering with a government, but building credibility and respectability, Westerby says. The level of legal recognition determines whether Mormons are able to meet, baptize, partake of the sacrament, collect tithing and proselytize.

"We are recognized in a country to the degree that we can do the things God wants us to do there," Westerby said.

Westerby used Southern Sudan as an example of the church's cautious approach. The "semiautonomous, largely Christian region" is separate from Sudan, which is under "serious sanctions" from the United States, Westerby explained. He says estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000 people worshipping as LDS in Southern Sudan — "even though they have no authority or baptism."

Westerby was part of the process that led to the church being registered in Southern Sudan in 2009. He says there is now a small branch functioning from a home in Juba, the capital city.

Attorneys must review every contract entered into in that area to assure there is no contact or affiliation with Sudan to the north, Westerby said.

"Many opportunities may be found outside Juba … but the personal security risks are high," Westerby said. "The church is developing there, but only very carefully despite being welcomed (with) open arms (by) the government."

Presenters at the conference detailed how church representatives have learned from past challenges in Africa.

In 1989, church operations were frozen in Ghana. Georges Bonnet, the former director of temporal affairs for Africa, says the door in Ghana was shut for two reasons: changes in registration requirements and misconceptions about the church. Seeing the rapid construction of chapels, the country's government perceived the church as flaunting its financial resources, Bonnet says.

The church responded by complying with the new registration requirements, though some were "capricious," Bonnet says. Church members were encouraged to participate in community programs that facilitated literacy, health and hygiene. Latter-day Saints in Ghana remained faithful, and the church never compromised its doctrine.

Also, a fleet of four-wheel-drive vehicles was replaced by small cars.

"We learned early in our days in Africa that we need to avoid the appearance of wealth, opulence and Americanism as the church expands its presence," Bonnet said.

The church was reinstated in Ghana in November 1990. By April 1991, two stakes had been organized.

During a question-and-answer session at the conference, Bonnet, who is the current director of the church's operations and maintenance division, told an audience member that the Aba Nigeria temple is "closed, but not for very much longer.

"We're just doing some things on the complex to improve security," he said.

Elder Alexander A. Odume has been called as president of the temple, which was closed indefinitely in August 2009 due to violence in surrounding areas.