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Mormon leaders say they find acceptance in Holy Land 20 years after mass protests

When Jeffrey R. Holland, a top Mormon leader, visited Jerusalem in 1987, he was besieged by thousands of Orthodox Jewish protesters who feared the church's new educational center here would be a base for missionary work.

During a visit two decades later, Holland said he felt no such antagonism.

Though many Orthodox Jews remain wary of the 20 year Mormon presence here, others say the church has made good on its promise not to use Brigham Young University's Jerusalem Center recently reopened after a six-year security shutdown to proselytize.

"After some of the misunderstandings and accusations that we endured during the building of the campus, it is most gratifying to have enjoyed two decades of pleasant, productive association with all our friends in Jerusalem," Holland said after he and BYU President Cecil Samuelson met with local university presidents, Israeli lawmakers, and Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders.

The visit by Holland, a member of the church's governing body of 12 apostles, came ahead of the church's semiannual general conference Saturday in its base in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Holland attributes the improved environment in the Holy Land to a promise the Mormons made to refrain from their traditional missionary work.

Israel has laws against missionary work, and for many here, proselytizing is dangerously close to the forced conversions European Jews endured for centuries. To respect cultural and historical sensitivities, BYU students sign a pledge not to speak about their religion while in the Holy Land.

Still, some Israeli officials can't shake their suspicions about a religion that has more than 50,000 full-time missionaries seeking converts around the world.

"We must remember that the Mormons have a strong belief in missionary work," said Mina Fenton, an Orthodox member of Jerusalem 's city council. "They have big, big money and they buy things. I call it the money crusade against Jews."

Joseph Ginat, director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College, said Israel has nothing to worry about from the Mormons.

"When they opened the center, they gave their word they wouldn't proselytize. I've known the Mormons for years now and they are very serious about keeping their word," Ginat said.

The Mormons' campus in an eight-story building on Jerusalem's Mount Scopus overlooks the disputed holy site known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary. It shut down six years ago during a flare up in violence between Israel and the Palestinians, but reopened in January after hostilities subsided.

Before the center was inaugurated 20 years ago this month, the BYU Jerusalem program was run out of hotel rooms and rented classrooms for 15 years.

Like many Western religions, the Mormon Church, known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has deep emotional ties to Jerusalem.

"The Book of Mormon," which members of the religion abide by together with the New and Old Testaments, says that Israelites migrated to the New World and were the ancestors of American Indians. Latter-day Saints believe that Church founder Joseph Smith Jr. translated the holy book from golden plates he discovered through an angel in the 1820s and restored authentic Christianity.

The book follows the story of a family who leaves Jerusalem for the Americas around 600 B.C. In 1841, Smith sent apostle Orson Hyde to Jerusalem to dedicate the land for Smith's prophecy of the return of the Jews. A park on the Mount of Olives commemorates Hyde's pilgrimage.

"In so many ways, Jerusalem ... constitutes the scene, the setting and the circumference of our religious heritage," Holland recently told a new group of 44 students at the church's Jerusalem center. "The origins of our sacred texts all focus us here."

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