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No more U.S. Mormon missionaries to be allowed in Switzerland?

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 15 2010 12:16 a.m. MST

LDS missionaries write letters home and wash their clothes at the Mormon Missionary Training Center in Provo in 2008. Two of the Elders were headed to Germany while a third was going to Switzerland.

Associated Press

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SALT LAKE CITY — While Switzerland and the European Union bickered Tuesday on immigration and foreign-worker agreements, the Swiss' current interpretation and implementation of those policies will result in banning most foreign missionaries from entering the central European nation beginning in 2012.

The ban will prohibit all religious missionaries coming from the United States and other countries not part of the European Union or European Free Trade Association (EFTA). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sent its representatives to Switzerland for a century and a half.

At present, Switzerland allows a limited quota on the number of LDS missionaries entering from foreign countries — 80 in 2010, 50 in 2011 and none in 2012.

A group of 14 U.S. senators and representatives — including LDS members such as Sen. Orrin Hatch R-Utah, Sen. Bob Bennett R-Utah, Sen. Harry Reid D-Nevada, Sen. Mike Crapo R-Idaho and Rep. Jim Matheson D-Utah – recently appealed to the Swiss government to rethink its restrictions against Mormon missionaries.

"Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been an integral part of the Swiss landscape for 160 years. I'm disappointed the Swiss government is moving forward with a process that will ban missionaries, including LDS missionaries, by 2012," Hatch said Tuesday.

"I am continuing to work with other members of Congress to persuade the Swiss government to reconsider its decision and work toward finding a mutually acceptable solution to the problem."

The missionary ban stems from bilateral agreements between the EU and the much-smaller EFTA. Switzerland is not a EU member but joins Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein to currently comprise EFTA.

The immigration and employment policies, which went into effect in 2002, allow members of European Union countries to seek employment in Switzerland while restricting work permits for non-EU and non-EFTA foreigners.

Earlier this year, a Swiss court ruled missionaries are subject to the foreigner-employment quotas, deeming them as "gainfully employed" and falling under worker quotas regarding individuals with particular work skills.

Mormon missionaries are unpaid volunteers, serving for two years without compensation and not competing for employment with other workers.

"The church has a long history in Switzerland dating back to 1850," said LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter. "We hope a solution can be found that allows missionaries, regardless of their country of origin, to continue to serve the Swiss people.

"In our experience, the church's missionaries return home after service in Switzerland with great love and respect for the people, history and culture of the country."

The U.S. lawmakers wrote to the Swiss embassy earlier this year on behalf of the LDS Church, citing its volunteer missionary program and its long-standing relationship with Switzerland.

"We expect an ongoing dialogue with the Swiss government representatives and U.S. officials to ensure that responsible religious missionaries have the fullest possible opportunity to continue their work abroad with the minimum of bureaucratic hurdles," Crapo told swissinfo.ch, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation's nine-language internet news and information platform.

The embassy's response was mixed.

In return correspondence, then-Swiss ambassador Urs Ziswiler, whose tenure ended in mid-October, offered some hope. "Laws can be amended and regulations can be changed, but it will be up to the relevant communities involved to initiate those changes," he wrote.

However, Ziswler told swissinfo.ch : "We have several similar cases from other countries, and to make an exception for the Mormons would create a precedent."

Tuesday, the European Commission — the EU's executive body — and Switzerland argued over the same immigration and employment agreements.

The EU claims the Swiss are much more restrictive in interpretation and regulation than its EFTA peers. Meanwhile, Switzerland says it faces one of Europe's largest foreign resident working populations, with foreigners accounting for more than 22 percent of its population.

The Swiss government estimates more than 1 million EU citizens live in Switzerland, with another 200,000 crossing its border every day to work in the country.

The LDS Church created its Swiss Mission in 1850 and in 1955 dedicated its first "overseas" temple outside of North America, originally called the Swiss Temple. Now the Bern Switzerland Temple, it sits in the northern suburb of Zollikofen.

As of the first of 2010, the church totaled nearly 8,000 members in Switzerland, with five stakes, 24 wards and 12 branches in the country.

Email: taylor@desnews.com

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