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Missionary slayings very rare in LDS Church

Published: Friday, Jan. 6 2006 7:51 p.m. MST

 (Deseret Morning News graphic) (Deseret Morning News graphic)
While most Americans watched football bowl games or otherwise enjoyed an extended New Year's holiday on Monday, Elder Morgan W. Young knocked on doors in the rain in Chesapeake, Va., offering a gospel message.
Then he and his LDS missionary companion apparently witnessed a shooting, and a gunman turned on them. Young, 21, of Bountiful, was shot to death, making the ultimate sacrifice for his beliefs.
Statistics suggest that the tragedy was atypical for LDS missionaries, who seldom fall victim to violence. Most of those who have been killed in recent years have died in accidents, not slayings. The opposite appears to be true for missionaries of most other Christian faiths, where almost all of their reported deaths have been murders.
 (Deseret Morning News graphic) (Deseret Morning News graphic)
The Deseret Morning News identified 177 Christian missionaries killed in the past seven years, based on Internet searches of newspapers and church Web sites. Of them, 158 were murdered — 89 percent.
Among those 177 total deaths were 17 missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Fourteen of them died from accidents, and only three from murders.
The LDS missionaries who died often were killed in supposedly safe places and not by attacks. For example, 10 of them died in automobile accidents, and eight of them died in the United States.
Four of them — Elders Jaysen Ray Christiansen, Jared Mont Pulham, Bradley Alan Savage and Daniel Byrne Roundy — all from Utah, were killed in January 2000 in the same collision in Iowa.
Of note, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former head of the Salt Lake City Olympics and presumed presidential candidate, was nearly killed in a car accident when he was an LDS missionary in France in 1968. (One missionary in the car was killed.) In fact, a policeman who found Romney lying on the road wrote "Il est mort" (he is dead) on his passport. Obviously, he survived instead.
Accidents besides car wrecks also kill LDS missionaries. Last month, Elder Benjamin Ellsworth of Mesa, Ariz., died in Argentina when he fell beneath a train he was attempting to board. In 2003 in Argentina, Elder Nathan Scott Godfrey was electrocuted when he jumped into water trying to save a 13-year-old boy. Both died when a power line made contact with the water.
The world may have more modern martyrs than most people may realize. The 177 missionary deaths identified by the Morning News among Christian churches is likely just the tip of the iceberg. (A list of all 177 and how they died is available online by clicking on the graphic link at left.)

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"I do know that there are many Asian, Indian, Brazilian and Korean missionaries who have been killed that you will never hear about since you probably are not reading Korean, Portuguese or Chinese newspapers (nor are they on the Internet)," says Scott Sunquist, professor of world missions at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
David B. Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates based on 30 years of research that 130 or so Christian foreign missionaries of all faiths are killed each year — and most are not reported by newspapers. He says that number could be much higher, depending on how a "missionary" is defined.
He says most churches count as missionaries only those full-time clergy who are proselyting in foreign lands. But if all Christian workers (full- and part-time, in home countries and abroad) are counted, he figures about 1,700 of them are killed a year.
And in a larger sense, he says anyone who bears witness of his beliefs is doing missionary work. He figures based on reports collected over 30 years that a staggering 160,000 such Christians are killed for their beliefs each year, becoming martyrs (a Greek word that means "to witness").
How dangerous is the world today for missionaries?
Bill Bangham, spokesman for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, said, "We've been sending out missionaries since the mid-1800s, and 24 have suffered violent deaths over that time. But eight of them have occurred in the last three years."
Danger can affect all faiths. Of the 177 missionary fatalities identified by the Morning News, 126 were Catholics; 17 were LDS; 15 were Baptists; nine were listed only as "Christian"; four were evangelical Christians; two were Wycliffe Bible translators; and one each came from the Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists and Gospel for Asia.
Danger can come in almost any country. Colombia had the most missionary deaths reported, 25. Numbers in other countries included: India, 15; Congo, 12; Uganda, 11; the United States, 10; Kenya, 6; Brazil and Iraq, 5 each; Argentina, Burundi, Guatemala, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and South Africa, 4; and 43 other countries had at least one death.
Reasons behind the deaths are many, but the lion's share of those killed — 106 of 177, or 60 percent — appear to have been murdered because of unpopular religious or political beliefs.
Among them was Christian missionary Aroun Warapong, shot in Laos two weeks ago on Dec. 23 after leading an early Christmas service. He recently had been imprisoned for a year because of his outspoken faith.
Other examples include Christian missionary Graham Staines and his young sons Philip and Timothy. They were burned alive in a Jeep by a mob in India in 1999. Local Christians alleged the mob was led by Hindu extremists.
Another example is Sergei Besarab, a Baptist missionary in his native Tajikistan who was shot in 2004. A week before he was murdered, a local newspaper sharply criticized Besarab's missionary work and noted he had been imprisoned four times.
Of such murders, Barrett said in an interview, "It's always been dangerous to be a public Christian working as a Christian in countries that are hostile to Christian countries. That would be about a quarter of the countries in the world."
He adds, "In many of those places, a missionary would know: If I stand up and preach there, I will be killed." He said Christian workers in such countries are usually careful not to call themselves missionaries but refer to themselves as relief or humanitarian workers.
Many missionaries were also killed by people who did not like their politics.
For example, Catholic nun Dorothy Stang was shot to death in Brazil last year after working 23 years there trying to protect the rainforest and its peasants. An investigating commission said a chain of people — ranchers, loggers and government officials — opposed her and were willing to pay to have her killed.
U.S. Catholic Rev. John Kaiser, 67, was shot in Kenya in 2000 after accusing the government of illegal seizing of land. Lutheran missionary Doraci Edinger, 53, was murdered in Mozambique in 2004 after she criticized the government for indifference about criminal rings she said are murdering people to steal and market their organs for transplant.
At least 40 of the 177 killed missionaries identified died in robberies.
An example is LDS missionary Adele Atchley, 65, killed in her apartment in an apparent robbery attempt in the Ivory Coast in 2002. Her husband was away from the apartment when the crime was committed.
Virtually all churches take steps to protect missionaries. The Utah-based LDS Church declined, however, to comment for this story about what steps it takes.
Some are obvious, however, including that its missionaries work in pairs. Church spokesmen have also said repeatedly that it sends missionaries only to countries where the local government welcomes them — decreasing the chance that local residents would lash out at them for unpopular beliefs.
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of Twelve gave a general conference address in 1989 that listed some other steps.
For example, he said when unrest in a country occurs, church officials "monitor conditions daily and even hourly, if necessary" to ensure missionaries there do not face undue risk, and remove them when warranted.
Elder Ballard also said in the 1989 speech, "Our records since 1981 reveal that the total number of missionaries who have lost their lives through accident, illness or other causes is very small. . . . The death rate of young male missionaries from the United States serving worldwide is one-fifth the rate of young males of comparable age living in Utah. It is one-seventh the rate of young males of comparable age in the general population of the United States," he said.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com

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