Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Daunting task known as Slovakian miracle

Slovakia grants Church legal recognition after missionaries gather 20,000 signatures
Published: Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006

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With petitions signed by more than 20,000 people stating they would accept The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into their country, Slovakian officials granted official recognition of the Church on Oct. 18 in a seemingly whirlwind of events now known to missionaries as the miracle in Slovakia.

Courtesy Europe Central Area
Elder David A. Bednar and Dr. Jan Juran of Slovakia display certificate recognizing Church. They are accompanied by President G. Fred Yost Jr., left, and wife, Susan; Elder Johann A. Wondra and wife, Ursula; and Susan Bednar. Beside Dr. Juran is his aide, and Jonathan Tichy.
Photos by Emily Dibble
Missionaries tally figures after an exhaustive day of gathering signatures.
Photo by Emily Dibble
A missionary invites local resident to sign petition.

In less than a week in September, beyond their greatest hopes, missionaries in the Czech Prague Mission canvassed the neighboring country of Slovakia to gather the 20,000 signatures required by law for recognition of the Church in this central European country of more than 5 million.

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve said, "Consider what that must have been like for citizens of a former communist country to not only give their signature of approval to another church, but also divulge their home address, personal identification number and full name."

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, said Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy and president of the Europe Central Area, the former country of Czechoslovakia divided into its two traditional ethnic groups of Czechs and Slovaks. In 1993, each became a new country.

The Church was quickly recognized in the Czech Republic where the Czech Prague Mission was organized in 1990.

But the Church was not readily recognized in Slovakia. Here, one of the most demanding religious laws was adopted, requiring new religions to gather a petition signed by 20,000 Slovak citizens stating their support for the new religion in their country.

In theory, added Elder Hafen, the law encouraged religious freedom, but made it impractical to attempt.

Over the years, only a few missionaries on temporary visas have been allowed in the country, and without a translation of the Book of Mormon in Slovakian, growth of the Church has been extremely slow, though several branches have been organized.

Church leaders concluded it impractical to meet the demands of such stringent laws and felt to wait until the law was changed.

About a decade later, after meeting with the Valnichek family of Bratislava, Slovakia, and others, including Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve who encouraged them to exercise faith, the Europe Central Area presidency felt it was time to seek recognition by gathering the signatures and petitioned the First Presidency for permission to proceed.

Gathering would be a daunting task. It was hoped that all 20,000 signatures could be gathered in a month, but given past experiences, Church leaders suspected that such success was improbable.

It was decided that the task required people of faith, said Elder Hafen. The approximately 60 missionaries of the Czech Prague Mission were gathered in a special mission conference in Brno on Sept. 1, where it was announced that all would cross into Slovakia to gather signatures.

"What followed was a wonderful manifestation of the Lord's hand in all things," said President G. Fred Yost Jr. of the Czech Prague Mission.

"Have you moved to the edge where miracles occur?" he asked his missionaries.

"Looking out from the stand," he said, "we saw a group prepared for the task. The Spirit was strong. There was no doubt in their minds that they would be successful. We reveled in their enthusiasm, not wanting to dampen their spirits, but feeling that they did not know the demands of the extreme task we were asking."

Beginning Tuesday, Sept. 4, missionaries began canvassing cities on the eastern end of Slovakia and, working day by day, moved toward Bratislava, the capital city in the west.

To the delight and surprise of leaders, each group of missionaries gathered thousands of signatures each day. By Friday of that week, after four days of effort, missionaries had gathered almost 25,000 signatures — thousands more than anyone thought possible. In the next days, a second effort gathered more signatures, up to 33,000.

"What seemed an impossible task was accomplished very swiftly by the power of the Lord," said President Yost.

Assisting the effort was a group of returned missionaries who had served in Slovakia. Led by Jonathon Tichy, who served in the early 1990s, this group of returned missionaries, including James McConkie, Ryan Mecham, Rod Andreason and Aaron Ekstrom, were organized as captains of missionary groups, along with other returned missionaries and professional Church staff.

Petitions were delivered to the Slovak government on Sept. 26 with an official request for Church recognition. Church leaders were told certification would require four to six weeks.

A few months prior, before the effort to gain recognition began, Elder Bednar, who has Slovakian ancestral ties, was assigned to visit the area.

When Dr. Jan Juran, director of Church Affairs in the Slovak Ministry of Culture, learned that Elder Bednar was coming, he said, "I would be very eager to meet the Mormon Slovakian apostle."

Arrangements were made and on the afternoon of Oct. 18, much earlier than anticipated, Dr. Juran announced to Elder Bednar that official Church recognition had been granted.

That evening, Elder Bednar and his group traveled to Trencin, another city in the region, for a member meeting. He asked Brother Tichy to translate the words of the hymn, "The Morning Breaks," into Slovakian. Elder Bednar phonetically deciphered the words and, in his first attempt to speak Slovakian, recited the hymn during the member meeting to announce the official recognition of the Church and the new spiritual day that is breaking over Slovakia.

"There was penetrating silence and sobs of happiness," he said, describing the more than 200 members and investigators gathered in a conference room of a local hotel.

"He allows us to be a part of this great work, but He is in control. This miracle in Slovakia will always be a part of our lives. The Church will grow strong here in Slovakia and it will change people's lives," President Yost said.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who was born in what is now the Czech Republic, dedicated Slovakia in May 12, 2006 (see Church News, Sept. 9, 2006).

E-mail to: shaun@desnews.com