Slovakia!

November 14, 2006 | 9 comments
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The government of Slovakia granted the Church official recognition on October 18. The Church had been recognized in Czechoslovakia and retained its status in the Czech Republic when the Czechs and Slovaks went their separate ways, but Slovakia wanted a new legal foundation for its dealings with religion. Especially for smaller, foreign religions. Without official recognition, the Church could not own property, build chapels, apply for missionary visas, or have full access to the media. The new Slovak law required all churches seeking legal status to submit a petition with 20,000 signatures.

The church has three branches with 120 members in the entire country.

The leaders of Slovakia’s established church called on their members to oppose the Mormons’ petition drive. Even without that opposition, there was no way the local LDS congregations could collect enough signatures on their own, so the Church printed brochures and enlisted the services of a public relations agency. The signature-gatherers were not members of the Church, but they planned to appeal to their fellow Slovaks’ respect for the Church’s values and to the value of religious diversity in their country. The public relations agency was confident that a couple dozen specialists would have the job done in a few weeks.

Two weeks pass. Total number of signatures gathered: 200.

It was time for a new tactic. For a week, all 70 missionaries in the Czech Republic are sent to Slovakia to gather signatures. They were mostly young Americans with varying levels of fluency in Czech, and Czech is not identical to Slovak.

A week passes. Total number of signatures gathered: 34,000.

The easy part is over, and the members and missionaries in Slovakia have much hard work ahead. But they are not entirely alone in their labors.

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9 Responses to Slovakia!

  1. Julie M. Smith on November 14, 2006 at 12:08 pm

    Elder Bednar spoke at our stake conference this week and spoke extensively about the recognition of the church in Slovakia. Because we’ve been asked not to post notes from regional meetings, I won’t say much about what he said, except to say that he gave several incidents from the path to recognition and tied them together to make the point that God is very aware of individuals. It was very moving.

  2. Robin on November 14, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    We are in Budapest, and when Elder Bednar came to speak at stake conference (the first in Hungary) he had just come from receiving the official recoginition of the Church from the Slovakian government. Elder Bednar said that it was an historic weekend in Europe with Slovakia’s recognition of the Church, President Hinckley’s dedication of the Helsinki temple, and the first Stake Conference in Hungary occuring all at the same time.

    On a trip to Bratislava we discovered the LDS Branch meeting house shared an address and courtyard right in old town (Mikalska street) with the Embassy of Georgia. Despite repeated efforts (checking in at 9, 10, 11, 12, and 1) we could not find a meeting in progress on Sunday…. does anyone know anything more about that?

    On another note, I had the chance to interview Bill Atkin, Associate General Counsel over the Church’s international affairs. He talked about the efforts that went into obtaining recognition in Slovakia, among other things. You can listen to the interview at Spirit in the Law or by searching for Spirit in the Law on the iTunes podcast directory.

  3. Kevin Barney on November 14, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Our Chicago chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society (basically LDS laywers) had a lunch meeting recently where this story was relayed to us. Our chair had attended the annual JRCLS conference in Provo, which always falls just before October GC. Bill Atkin’s team of foreign lawyers come in for this (I think there are seven of them), and one of them recounted this story. One of the women in our group said that her brother is a missionary in the Czech Republic and confirmed that they all went into Slovakia for a week or two collecting signatures on petitions.

    A couple of footnotes to add:

    1. Apparently, at first (before the missionaries thing) they assumed they would at least be able to get their own members to sign and have that as a small foundation to build on. But, at first at least, they couldn’t even get their own members to sign these petitions. Apparently you had to record personal information and people were leery of doing that.

    2. They work with a local attorney in Slovakia, and he likewise refused to sign. He said that if you get all of the other signatures (which he sincerely doubted they would ever accomplish), then he would be the last one to sign. But when the missionaries were in the country and getting them signed on the street, he somehow felt compelled to go up to one and sign the petition. And when he got to his law office and compared notes with his staff, he realized that they had all signed the petition as well.

  4. Kevin Barney on November 14, 2006 at 2:23 pm

    In case it is of interest to anyone, here are my notes on the other reports from international church legal counsel around the world (I’ve omitted the Slovakia story, which is already recounted in the main post):

    At the end of the conference, the eight lawyers who
    work with Bill Atkin, the Church’s associate general
    counsel for international affairs, gave reports on
    what is going on legally in their respective areas. I
    thought this was interesting, so I took some notes and
    will try to convey the gist of it to you. (Caution:
    you are getting this third hand now, so don’t take any
    of this as gospel.)

    The guy in China had asked Bill if he could relate
    what the Church is doing in China, and Bill told him
    “no.” But our chair is very familiar with China and
    has spent a lot of time there, and he told us some
    things on his own. They have had expat wards for
    foreign business men and such for some time now, but
    last year they quietly started forming local wards.
    The Church wanted to make this official, but the
    government officials they worked with said that
    although they could do this, it was impossible to make
    it official.

    My friend also said if you ever travel to China and
    want to go to church there, you need to get detailed
    directions in advance. They’re not in the phone book,
    and there is no signage. If you don’t know where the
    church is in a given area, you’ll never find it.

    The southeast Asia guy was allowed to comment on
    Vietnam. He reported that the Church feels Vietnam
    will be the next Phillipines. Apparently, the Church
    has made great progress in getting various government
    approvals to operate openly there.

    The Australia guy talked about the process building a
    temple in Brisbane. He was at some sort of zoning
    committee, and was asked whether the gold guy on top
    was really necessary. He thought for a moment, and he
    knew there have been temples without a Moroni statue
    for various reasons. But instead of arguing or trying
    to parse an answer, he felt impressed to say simply
    “yes.” In retrospect, he is convinced that if he had
    said anything else or qualified his answer in any way,
    there would not be a statue on top of that temple.

    The Polynesia guy (my friend couldn’t remember which
    island this relates to) talked about a real estate
    dispute. The chapels there are more open air, and a
    woman had squatted on church land and was raising pigs
    right by the chapel. The land records are a mess,
    because whenever someone has a real estate problem
    they just burn down the building that holds the land
    records and throw all the titles into dispute. This
    attorney was supposed to attend a meeting on this
    problem in the morning, and things hadn’t been going
    well and he was concerned. So he got down on his
    knees and prayed about it. In the morning he got a
    call saying he didn’t need to come, that the woman had
    died in the middle of the night(!) That didn’t
    totally resolve the problem (for instance, the town
    decided to bury the woman under her pigs on the church
    land), but it was a start.

    The guy in Africa talked about how the Ghana temple is
    in a location between the airport and a place that
    government ministers must go, so every leader in
    Africa has seen that temple. Conversely, the temple
    in Nigeria is in a very remote location; there wasn’t
    even a road to it when they started building. Given
    the religious troubles there, that is a good thing.

    When the church built a ward house in Nigeria, they
    felt impressed to do a service project for the mosque
    across the street. As a result they got to know and
    become friens with the local Muslims. When a gang of
    Muslims came to destroy our building, the ones from
    across the street circled our property and told them
    to go away, that these people were our friends. (A
    wag at our lunch said “And they’re not even
    Christian!”)

    The guy in Russia was told by his predecessor to
    expect to be pulled over by the police two or three
    times a year, and to be sure to have all his
    documentation in the car with him. In two months he
    had been pulled over 12 times. The last time a
    policeman motioned to him, and so he just started
    handing him all the papers in his car, including food
    receipts and everything. The policeman kept motioning
    and didn’t seem satisfied, and this lawyer didn’t
    speak Russian. So he called an assistant and had him
    talk to the policeman, and after a conversation the
    policeman got in the passenger side and sat in the
    car. The lawyer was freaked out by this, and asked
    the assistant what was going on. The policeman hadn’t
    been stopping him; there was an accident two miles
    away, and he just wanted a lift.

  5. Julie M. Smith on November 14, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    “Apparently you had to record personal information and people were leery of doing that.’

    That is precisely what Elder Bednar said–that the petition required the equivalent of a social security number and no one wanted to give that out.

  6. john f. on November 14, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    Not to mention the fear of reprisals in a country brutalized by decades of totalitarian rule and the abuses of a secret police.

  7. Jonathan Green on November 14, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    Kevin, thanks for your notes. What you have heard corresponds to what I have heard.

  8. Chris Williams on November 15, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    I\’m no longer Mormon, but I\’m happy about this news. I served in the Czechoslovakia Prague Mission from 1991 to 1993. With my companion I opened two Slovak cities to missionary work for the first time: Bratislava in the fall of 1991 and Trencin in the sping of 1992. It was a heady time for young Mormon missionary in that part of the world at that moment in time. As a country, Slovakia has come a very long way since I was there. This is a sign of the country\’s political and cultural maturity, and I count that as a good thing.

    Nech zije Slovensko!

  9. abe on November 15, 2006 at 9:45 pm

    I also served in Slovakia and also find this a very good sign. I googled some of the Slovak discussion groups on the subject, and was found lots of people ripping on the Catholic bishop (Balaz was the name, I think) who made such a big deal about urging people not to sign the petition. It doesn’t sound to me that fighting this battle was such a good PR move for the Catholic bishops involved (but I am viewing this from so far away, that it is hard for me to tell what really happened — anybody know more?)

    I was unable to find was the exact wording of the petition. My understanding had always been that people signing the petition had to declare that they were members (i.e., that the law actually required 20,000 actual members). But the impression I got from the online conversation was that it was something a little more vague (that they had to declare that they supported the goals of the LDS church or something).

    In the Catholic bishops’ statement against the petition, they said that members signing this document were declaring their support for a faith other than their own. In the defense of the bishops, I can imagine that Mormon leaders might object to having their members sign documents saying, “We declare ourselves to be members of the Catholic church” or even “We accept and support all of the goals of the Catholic church.”

    I vaguely recall a silly movie where everybody stands up and says “I’m gay” to show solidarity with a beloved and persecuted gay teacher. I wondered whether this was a matter of finding 20,000 people to essentially stand up and say “I’m Mormon” as a way of supporting religious freedom (and maybe sticking it to the dominant religions…) Or did they just have to say “I’m okay with Mormons being recognized as a church”?

    Either way, it’s good news for the tiny Slovak church. Not being recognized by the government was at times really annoying.