NUKU'ALOFA, Tonga — The royal family and nobles here are Free Wesleyan Christians and 62 percent of the population has membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so when King Tupou VI welcomed President Russell M. Nelson to the royal palace, religious liberty was a key topic.
"It's important for us to be able to thank leaders for the privilege of religious freedom in their country," President Nelson said after emerging from the white, shiplap-sided palace.
"It's a really precious aspect of governmental relations to allow the people to have the ability to practice the religion of their choice."
The two leaders also spoke about education and living a healthy lifestyle during the 30-minute meeting. The king and queen invited President Nelson to hold a short press conference on the palace lawn under overcast skies 50 yards from the Pacific Ocean. They rolled out a traditional Tongan tapa, a mat made of crushed tree bark, for him to stand on.
Tongans observe strict Sabbath rules that include no swimming in the ocean on Sundays.
"Religion ties people to God and a higher way of life," President Nelson said. "You can't teach that kind of thing without religious connotations. They understand that here. I like to be able to thank leaders for their receptivity to allowing our people to worship with dignity."
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said the subject is vital for church leaders as they crisscross the globe.
"It's such an important part of the world today to recognize that moral values and strong families make strong communities, and strong communities make strong countries," he said, "so to have religious values and religious freedom is really part of what makes a country strong and part of what makes the brotherhood and sisterhood of man and woman with God possible."
President Nelson presented the king and queen a statue of a family. "They understand the significance of family in God's plan," he said.
Elder Gong called King Tupou VI a "wonderful example of someone who comes from a broad-based education" and said he wants the same for his children and people.
Tonga enjoys a 99 percent literacy rate and a good educational system — including many private high schools like the Liahona school run by the church — but needs more educational opportunity and jobs. President Nelson said education is "in a sense a religious responsibility."
Elder Gong said the king spoke with President Nelson about the church leader's long association with his late father, King Tupou IV. He asked President Nelson to tell thousands of Tongan church members expected to assemble later in the day on a high school rugby field to hear him speak to seek education and live healthier lifestyles. President Nelson promised he would.
During the interviews, an offshore breeze whipped the Tongan flag atop the palace's maroon roof and rustled banana and palm fronds. President Nelson and Elder Gong were joined in the meeting by Sister Wendy Nelson and Sister Susan Gong as well as Elder O. Vincent Haleck of the faith's Pacific Area Presidency and his wife, Sister Peggy Haleck. The group met together first, then split, with the king meeting with the men and the queen with the women.
"What a grand woman she is," Sister Nelson said. "This is a woman who is bright, who has a heart that is focused on the people of Tonga and who has the ability to make a difference."
She said the queen is focused on strengthening young men in the Kingdom of Tonga.
"I could really feel the depth of concern in her heart for this next generation and her concern that men be able to be prepared for the roles that are theirs," Sister Gong said. "They need to be able to be stewards of the Lord and to be leaders of their families with love and gentleness that they will be able to carry on the traditions of her people throughout the next generation."
Sister Haleck said she felt the goodness of the queen's heart. "She loves her people. She wants to see the very best for Tonga not only today but for Tonga in the future."
Tonga is still recovering from the devastation of Cyclone Gita, the worst storm to strike the nation's 170 islands in their recorded history. The cyclone flattened the parliament building and destroyed nearly 200 homes, killing two and wounding an agricultural and fishing-based economy.5 comments on this story
"I was pleased to bring the greetings of Elder John Groberg to the king," President Nelson said, referring to an emeritus General Authority Seventy famous for his missionary labors in Tonga and his writings about the islands. "He's a legend here." President Nelson said one of Elder Groberg's grandchildren recently received a mission call to serve in Tonga.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly referred to the father of King Tupou VI as Tupou V. His father was Tupou IV. And the flag flying atop the palace was the king's standard, not the Tongan flag.