Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost could open the door for representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to operate for the first time in the Soviet Union, a Soviet official says.
"I don't think that there are any political obstacles for the Mormon Church, like any other, to be represented in the Soviet Union," Vladimir Zhukov, an 18-year veteran of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, said in an interview in Salt Lake City."It's in the policy of glasnost that we pay more attention to religion as such and its place in the life of our society," Zhukov said.
Church spokesman Jerry Cahill said church leaders are heartened by the changing Soviet attitudes and the opportunities those changes may create.
"We hope that at some time we may follow the pattern of establishing the church in Russia, as we've been able to do in other countries and as we've been able to do most recently in Hungary," Cahill said.
"There's nothing to preclude a member of the church from being a communist. It would be possible but difficult, especially if he regime required atheism," Cahill said. "The important thing is commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ."
With a membership of 6.5 million worldwide, the LDS Church has almost 2 million members living outside the United States and 36,000 missionaries involved in proselyting activities in 80 countries.
But there has never been a Mormon baptism in the Soviet Union.
Zhukov, an atheist, said the shift toward more religious tolerance was evident in Gorbachev's June speech to the 19th All-Union Conference of the Communist Party.
Calling freedom of conscience "fundamental," Gorbachev told party members: "We do not conceal our attitude to the religious outlook as being non-materialistic and unscientific. But this is no reason for a disrespectful attitude to the spiritual-mindedness of the believer, still less for applying any administrative pressure to assert materialistic views. All believers, irrespective of the religion they profess, are full-fledged citizens of the USSR."
Cahill said church officials believe they have a mandate to take the gospel throughout the world. "We look forward for the day when we can initiate our work in the Soviet Union. That would be a fond hope," he said.
As for mixing politics and religion, Cahill said it would never happen.
"Our missionaries are told simply not to get involved in political discussions. Our sole intent is to teach our message. We avoid politics. Political activity of any kind is not part of the missionary mandate," he said.
The church does encourage its members to involve themselves in politics as a matter of private conscience, within the contexts of the laws of the society in which they find themselves.
To date, the LDS Church has had no official contacts with Soviet officials, but there have been many unofficial "people-to-people" meetings.
Gorbachev's policy reverses the stance of past Soviet regimes, which have repressed and controlled religious expression, jailing some religious activists.
Zhukov, stationed in Utah since July 2, serves as the public information officer for the Soviet inspection team.
"We visited the LDS Church and have been welcomed by officials of this church. We've been told about the steps that are important to Mormons," said Zhukov.