Thursday, September 3, 2009

LDS Missionaries Being Expelled From Guyana Because Government Perceives Them As Being "Too Close" To The Opposition

Update September 11th: Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo speaks out on the missionary issue officially for the first time. Updated post HERE.

The story about missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being detained and ordered expelled from Guyana has now been picked up by MSNBC, and it appears they are being used as political pawns in an incipient power struggle within the country. I identified this as a possibility in my previous post.

Although the official story from Guyanese authorities is that the missionaries' travel documents were not in order, comments by Donald Ramotar of the governing People's Progressive Party suggest the crackdown goes beyond immigration issues. Ramotar, the party's general secretary, said "While we tolerate all religions, it appears that some officials had become uncomfortable with them around". Ramotar declined to elaborate. But some government officials and party members said privately that leaders felt the Mormons were too close to opposition figures and also were wary of the church's independent charity work in the interior.

Leslie Sobers, an attorney who serves as an LDS branch president and church public affairs director in Georgetown, also raised the issue, saying he thought the government might have been uneasy over perceived links between the Mormons and the opposition. He said opposition legislator Volda Lawrence traveled to Utah as a guest of the church two years ago, although the church also invited the pro-government head of the race commission, Juan Edghill, to visit.

Meanwhile, the Deseret News provides an updated account of how this went down, and it's somewhat different than the story published on September 2nd. It all began earlier this summer when the ministry asked the LDS church to supply a list of foreign nationals, their locations and copies of their passports. After the church promptly complied with a list of 66, along with the requisite applications for permits and extensions for all, the ministry determined 50 were in violation by overstaying, 13 were unclear and only three had valid work permits. The list was used in initiating the detentions on Wednesday September 2nd.

The ordeal for the missionaries actually began with one senior missionary couple detained Tuesday evening and kept overnight. Another 41 showed up at the CID office Wednesday morning as requested and relinquished their passports upon arrival. One couple and three young elders were released after a few hours; the remaining 38 were not allowed to leave immediately. The remaining missionaries spent the better part of 12 hours there before being released at about 7 P.M. Wednesday evening. So a grand total of 43 missionaries were affected.

Contrary to previous reports, the missionaries were never placed in cells, but were kept together in a large room with a handful of CID employees working at desks at the other end of the room. They also empahatically add that they did NOT sing "We Shall Overcome", but rather a mix of LDS hymns.

At issue is the interpretation of the missionaries' legal status to be in Guyana. The Guyanese government says the LDS missionaries are in the country without approved visa extensions. Church officials maintain they were merely waiting for pending applications for work permits and extensions of stay. In an attempt to resolve the differences, Ministry of Home Affairs officials and LDS Church counterparts met with President Bharrat Jagdeo. Afterwards, the ministry released a statement saying that the immigration laws needed to be upheld, that none of the 50 would be deported and that they would need to voluntarily leave the country within 30 days. Replacement missionaries would be allowed to enter Guyana provided they are granted work permits in advance of their arrival.

Update September 4th: According to this new Salt Lake Tribune article, Volda Lawrence, a People's National Congress Reform member of Parliament, has been working closely with the church, according to the Kaieteur News in Guyana. She was present at the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters, where the missionaries were held for about 12 hours, offering moral support. She stopped short of condemning the move by the Guyana government. She said the LDS Church had the approval to be in the country from the late Guyana president, Hugh Desmond Hoyte. "They are missionaries just like any other denomination. They've been helping throughout the length and breadth of Guyana, irrespective of affiliation, to any particular group and it's a very sad day for the poor people of Guyana," said Lawrence. The People's National Congress (PNC) is the largest opposition party in Guyana, and it's looking more and more like the LDS missionaries are pawns in a power struggle between the PNC and the ruling People's Progressive Party.

A much more detailed account, including photos of some of the primary players, can now be found published in Starbroek News, which originates in Guyana. The LDS Church Growth blog has a new post up which details the missionary organization in Guyana.

It is not normal for so many missionaries to be found to have their documentation out of order at the same time, considering that the LDS Church has so much experience in dealing with foreign travel and residency. Consequently, I believe the Guyanese government seized upon ambiguity in the law as an excuse to use LDS missionaries as political pawns to send a message to their opposition not to get too close to foreigners. The 30-day window prescribed before departure allows time for negotiations, but the Guyanese government will need to save face.

Consequently, while I don't think all 43 missionaries will ultimately be required to leave the country, the government will probably ask the church to pull at least 10 so they can claim a "moral victory". It's also important to remember that the Jonestown People's Temple atrocity remains reasonably fresh in Guyana's historical memory, so foreign-based religious movements will still be looked upon with some skepticism.

3 comments:

Pilland said...

Your report is very interesting indeed.
I invite You to see my Italian-Estonian site http://www.pillandia.blogspot.com
You'll find a rich collection of photos of political borders from all the world.
Best wishes!

nelly avila moreno said...

the Guyana govt is a corrupt cocaine empire that's very reactionary
they have info that the mormons are also engaged in 'espionage activities' along with the limited ties to the opposition
remember the govt is predominantly Hindus and Muslims to a lesser extent with a sprinkling of Christians. but the Hindus and Muslims hold the cards so they are suspicious of most religions activities outside their own

RM said...

I served part of my mission in the country-- the problem when I was there 1 year ago was an Antimormon who worked for the ministry of home affairs-- but if anyone admits that they're in for a public relations nightmare