BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Early on a summer morning in Buenos Aires, two beaming Mormon missionaries welcomed about 100 believers for a three-hour marathon of sermons, singing and discussion groups at the Belgrano Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.
In Argentina and across traditionally Catholic Latin America, Latter-day Saints churches such as this one are multiplying, and the region boasts the largest Mormon membership outside the United States, at some 5.2 million people.
Globally the church claims 13.5 million members, a similar number to the world Jewish population. Since the 1950s Mormonism has spread rapidly in Latin America partly because of proximity to the United States, where the religion was born.
The perceived stability and status of the church is also a draw for many Latin Americans who have lived through economic and political turmoil.
“To begin with it wasn’t easy, obviously it was a life-changing decision ... But now I have the faith and I have a shield to protect me from society, because today’s world is a difficult one,” Diego Lacho, a 28-year-old who is the most recent convert in the Belgrano congregation.
Lacho, a casino worker, married a Mormon woman three years ago and was baptized in August. He has learned to follow church rules against smoking, alcohol and coffee.
At the church he joins the cleanly shaved men in suits or collared shirts. The women wear skirts and dresses.
The Belgrano church’s wood and velvet hall, which fills twice over each Sunday, is just one of the 692 Latter-day Saints chapels in Argentina. There are 5,500 chapels in all of Latin America, three times the number there were in 1970.
“I served as a young missionary in Chile over 30 years ago and at that time the church was just starting to grow in South America,” said Elder Shane Brown, president of the Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay division of the church.
“There had been a prophecy that said the church would grow slowly but then that it would grow into an oak in South America, and I am really a witness of that.”
Mormonism has also grown strongly in the Philippines. Expansion elsewhere in Asia has been much slower, and in Europe Latin American immigrants account for much of the growth.
Sociologist Cesar Ceriani, who recently published a book on Mormon missionary work in Argentina, says Latin Americans see the Latter-day Saints as pure, reliable and economically powerful in a region often plagued by instability and corruption.
The church has an estimated global annual revenue of $5 billion, and everywhere it is expanding it spends heavily on new temples and chapels and on aid projects like clean water wells, hospitals and educational kits.
“The church has a lot of visible power, and people notice that the missionaries are always so neat, and the mission presidents are always so busy and well-dressed,” Ceriani said.
“They see the church as a tool, or a way of getting a better position or job, or belonging to a social group that gives one more stability and support,” he said.
The church’s regional leaders also say that in Latin America, most people are not aware of scandals that harm it elsewhere, such as media attention in the United States to polygamous practices by isolated fundamentalist Mormon groups.
Church leaders emphasize that these fundamentalists do not belong to the official church, which abolished polygamy more than a century ago and opened its priesthood to males of all races 30 years ago.
“These types of questions can come up. But for those that know the members of the church, they know that we have only one wife,” said Claudio Zivic, first counselor of the South American-South division of the church.
Mormons believe that Joseph Smith, who founded the religion in 1830 in upstate New York, was a prophet who was told by God and the Angel Moroni to re-establish the Christian church.
Though growth has been more recent, the Mormons do have some history in Latin America.
In the late 19th century, facing mounting U.S. pressure to renounce the practice of polygamy, bands of Mormons moved to Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains to establish colonies.
In fact, the father of prominent U.S. Mormon Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential hopeful, was born in a Mormon settlement in Mexico.
In 1920 the Book of Mormon was translated into Spanish, but it wasn’t until after World War Two and the expansion of U.S. geopolitical power that the church really began expanding.
At that time, the church put emphasis on training centers to teach them exactly what to do, what to wear and what to say while they were away representing “the face of the church”.
Today, 50,000 young men and women go forth each year to proselytize, and they can be away for up to two years.
“The life of a missionary is busy, busy, busy. We’re working really hard all the time trying to find people that are interested in the gospel... from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. We’re running the whole day. We get pretty tired,” said Elder Fuller, a missionary from Idaho working in Argentina.
Elder Fuller, who is not allowed to use his first name while on mission, is half-way through his trip, and so far has helped convert six people, a fairly standard number for most Mormon missionaries.
Some scholars argue that the Latter-day Saints, which is still struggling to gain mainstream acceptance in the United States because of its past links to polygamy, are well on their way to becoming a major world religion.
In Argentina, a second temple is being planned in the provincial capital of Cordoba, adding to the current establishment situated some 15 minutes from Buenos Aires International Airport.
It will become one of the 33 temples in Latin America where Mormons with restricted entry permits can attend sacred rituals such as the baptism of dead relatives.
Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Philip Barbara