PROVO — Mormon missionaries from the United States entered Botswana again last month after a four-year prohibition, U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said on Thursday.
Flake described how Botswana agreed to allow American missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as he delivered the keynote address at BYU's Religious Freedom Annual Review.
Botswana issued a blanket prohibition on visas for foreign missionaries in late 2013, just after the LDS Church established the Botswana/Namibia Mission. Foreign missionaries with visas and permits were allowed to complete their service, said LouJean Wilson, who served alongside her husband, Merrill Wilson, the first president of the mission, from 2013-16.
The number of Mormon missionaries in Botswana dropped from about 60 to fewer than 10, Wilson said. Until last month, the only Mormon missionaries in the country had been young Botswanan men and women.
Wilson said Botswanan government officials were protecting their people.
"They'd been taken advantage of by some religious groups," she said. "Neither the government nor the people were hostile to us. They were loving and kind to us. We had reasons to believe this was God's will at the time."
Flake said extensive dialogue and diplomacy failed to change the government's mind.
"We took steps to highlight the benefits of a vibrant relationship with the U.S. and to explain the downside of a unilateral action to deny visas," he added. "We had an amendment adopted during consideration of the International Religious Freedom Act reauthorization last year to expand reporting in the State Department's international religious freedom report to include routine denial of religious visas. The amendment expressed the sense of Congress that the routine denial of religious visas is indicative of a lack of religious freedom."
The United States also increased scrutiny of U.S. visas being issued by Botswanan authorities.
"Finally, the Botswanan government has found a way to accept LDS missionaries into the country on renewable, temporary visas," he said. "The first American missionaries reentered Zimbabwe after almost four years of absence just last month."
Flake's own son, Elder Tanner Flake, is now serving in the Botswana/Namibia Mission.
"Protecting religious freedom worldwide is particularly near and dear to me," the senator added. "As a young man, I served my Mormon misssion in southern Africa, serving in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Cheryl and I spent a year in the country of Namibia. For a political junkie, that was nirvana, to be there when a country writes its constitution and has its first elections. It was a wonderful time."
Wilson said the church continued to grow in Botswana even when there were three or four missionary companionships for a dozen congregations. Church members picked up the slack, she said.
The LDS Church now has more than 3,200 members in Botswana in 13 congregations.
Flake's speech kicked off the Religious Freedom Annual Review at the BYU Conference Center. The review continues with more speeches and panels on Friday, and is sponsored by the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
The LDS Church declined to comment.