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LDS Church
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, center, digs the first shovel of dirt for the Rome Italy Temple in 2010.

The Italian government has granted official status to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "partner of the state," more than a century and a half after the first Italian Latter-day Saints were baptized.

According to an announcement posted recently on the church's Newsroom website, President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy signed the Intesa con lo Stato, or legal agreement, on July 30. The agreement means the LDS Church joins a handful of religions — including Catholicism, Judaism and the Baptist and Methodist churches — as officially recognized religious denominations.

Since 1993, the LDS Church has been recognized in Italy as only a charitable institution, the Newsroom article said.

"We have been waiting for this for many years," said Giuseppe Pasta, an Italian Mormon for more than 40 years. "We have been praying and fasting, striving to be better people, to receive the Lord's help — and now we are here."

John Zackrison, director of the church's International Coordinating Committee, said the recognition "will eliminate current barriers that frequently interfere with our church leaders performing marriages and otherwise ministering."

It will also simplify the process for obtaining visas for missionaries and mission presidents and will eliminate many challenges for church leaders in their respective ministries. It also elevates the church in the eyes of government officials and other religious denominations in Italy.

"The secretary of the prime minister has already put me in touch with the minister of social activities," Pasta said. "Important Italian entities are already reaching out to us from the left and from the right now that we are considered an official religious denomination."

"The intesa is a fulfillment of a long-awaited blessing," said Maurizio Ventura, a local church leader in Pisa.

The first LDS missionaries in Italy arrived in Genova in 1850, and baptized the first Italian converts soon thereafter. By 1854 there were three branches of the church there. But new members were encouraged to migrate to Utah, and by 1867 missionary efforts in Italy ended. Through the years missionary efforts have resumed, and today there are nearly 20,000 members worshiping in more than 120 congregations. A new LDS temple, the first of its kind in Italy, is currently under construction in Rome and should be completed in 2014.