By Sasa Milosevic And Peggy Fletcher Stack ( The Salt Lake Tribune )
Belgrade, Serbia • The first LDS missionary arrived in the Balkans in 1899, but the region’s Mormons trace their real beginnings to 1972, when the late Croatian basketball star Kresimir Cosic — after a promising career at Brigham Young University — returned to proselytize in his home country, organizing branches in Zadar, Zagreb and Belgrade.
Earlier this month, Mormons from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia celebrated that event with a 40th-anniversary jubilee in
Croatia — just weeks before Mitt Romney will formally accept the Republican nomination for U.S. president.
Dragomir Savic, a former LDS leader in Serbia, said in 2010 that “it could be great miracle if a Mormon became the president.”
If such a “miracle” happens, would it convince Serbs, so dependent on U.S. financial and political assistance, that Mormonism is not a sect? After all, that’s how Serbs see the American-born faith — and that view hasn’t changed for years.
Serbia first let in Mormon missionaries in 1983, but from 1991 to 1999, they had to be evacuated several times because of ongoing war and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. In December 2001, after peace was restored, six missionaries re-entered Serbia, but the post-Slobodan Milosevic era has not necessarily brought better times to area Mormons.
Problems for Mormons in the Balkans began under communist Yugoslavia when the Catholic Church incited police to raid Mormon offices in Zadar. Even after winning Serbian governmental approval, the tiny, 304-member LDS community still faces prejudice. Most Serbs view the Utah-based faith as a sect consisting of “insane and brainwashed people” who practice polygamy. Many dis Mormons as “Morons.”
News stories here routinely stir up anti-LDS hostility. Many Serbs believe that because Mormon missionaries pay their own way and members fork over 10 percent of their earnings to the church, the religion is a “commercial cult” that exploits its followers.
Such stories have created a general distrust of Mormons, triggering occasional verbal and physical assaults of Mormon missionaries on the streets.
Tanner Harmon, a Mormon missionary from Utah, suffered a temporary amnesia after suffering a blow to the head.
“Serbs often call us ‘CIA boys’ and ‘Sectarian.’ They shout on the street, ‘Death to the cult,’ ” Harmon complained to a Serbian online magazine. “The church has nothing to do with the U.S. government. We do not enter the country through secret channels. We would not be in Serbia if we did not have permission from Serbian authorities.”
In January 2008, three LDS missionaries were attacked in Novi Sad, when a young man accused them of being cult members.
A few days later, vandals broke the windows on a Mormon meetinghouse in Novi Sad. Although the attack could be seen as a hate crime, police filed charges solely based on “damaging others’ property.” A similar act carried out on Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish facilities in Serbia might have been treated as an act of religious discrimination.
In a 2006 report on religious freedom, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade noted that the weekly magazine Pancevacke Novine defamed members of the Mormon community as “false benefactors leading their victims to total destruction, loss of houses and apartments, friends, family.”
Edward B. Rowe, president of the LDS Adriatic North Mission, acknowledges in an email that misperceptions remain, but his missionaries are doing their best to change that.
“Because the church is still relatively young in Serbia, many people there still know little about the church. People are at times curious or surprised to meet members and missionaries,” Rowe says. “People are often impressed with the values and happiness they see in the members and missionaries. Our missionaries speak with hundreds of people every day, many of whom are interested in learning more.
Currently, several Mormon missionaries labor in Serbia, he says, including a couple who also perform humanitarian service.
In fact, the LDS Church is one of the country’s most significant donors of humanitarian aid. Between 1992 and 2011, for example, the LDS Humanitarian Center provided more than $9 million worth of assistance.
Among those receiving Mormon money during the 1990s: the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church, the nation’s dominant faith, distances itself from any attack on Mormonism, welcoming LDS representatives on three occasions. But some Orthodox Church media reports have fueled animosity toward the religion.
For example, Radio Svetigora, established by the Orthodox Church, accused Mormons of recruiting potential “cult followers” by offering free English courses.
“The Mormon church becomes richer by 20 to 30 followers after each course,” one of the broadcasts asserted, describing the LDS Church as a “globalist, totalitarian and destructive pseudo-Christian sect.”
Radio reports also criticized Serbian judges for attending the English courses. But Dragana Boljevic, president of Serbian Society of Judges, defends the group’s involvement with Mormons.
That [English course] was one of the best educational experiences that the Serbian judges had so far,” she says, noting the successful cooperation between the LDS Church and the judicial society, launched 10 years ago by Mormon John Philips of the American Bar Association.
Latter-day Saints insist the classes are not meant as a conversion tool. Still, some participants, including Nikola Kovic, LDS district president for Serbia, do convert after completing the course. To Kovic, it came via a spiritual awakening.
“As I spent more time with the [Mormon] elders, they began teaching me the discussions,” he writes on his blog. “[They] opened up a whole new world to me. I was like a notebook full of blank pages. I was eager to learn. The pages began to fill up quickly. I gained a fragile testimony that, as it grew, strengthened my faith in God.”
So will Romney’s candidacy sweeten the sometimes-bitter ties between Orthodox Serbs and Mormons?
Kovic isn’t saying. His reticence is likely due to the church’s insistence on political neutrality, says Bill Silcock, who served an LDS mission to Australia in the 1970s and now teaches journalism at Arizona State University.
“Fundamental to our beliefs is that members should be active citizens and active in politics but campaigning is never part of Sunday worship services,” he says, “and no political candidate is ever endorsed over the pulpit whether in Belgrade, Budapest, Boston or Boise.”
Even so, Silcock believes the publicity surrounding Romney’s campaign “will allow the people of Serbia to realize the Mormon church is not a cult, nor on the fringe but a major mainstream religion that is growing globally — even in the Balkans.”