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Catholic Bishops Upset by Conversion of Latinos : Proselytizing: Mormons, Adventists and other churches are accused of using unfair tactics to gain new Spanish-speaking members.


Using unusually strong language, Catholic bishops in California and northwestern Mexico have accused Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and other religious groups of "unfair and coercive practices" to lure Latinos away from their Roman Catholic heritage.

The charges of proselytizing Latinos "at any cost" drew denials this week from officials of the Adventist and Mormon churches--denominations that have not been named in previous Catholic documents dealing with steady losses of Latino Catholics.

L. Stephen Gifford of Riverside, president of the Adventists' Southeastern California Conference, said he was unaware of any Adventist coercion against members of another denomination.

"At a time when all churches, including Seventh-day Adventists, are concerned about the brotherhood of mankind, such a sweeping statement of this kind by the bishops is most unfortunate and will arouse much ill will," Gifford said in a statement.

A Mormon spokesman expressed surprise that Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, one of the signers, "thinks those charges apply to us." Both the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese and the Mormon Church have cordial contacts through local interfaith organizations.

"We gave an award recently to Archbishop Mahony, and the Mormon Church several years ago donated $1.5 million to Catholic Relief Services for their work in Ethiopia," said Keith Atkinson of Los Angeles, public relations director for Mormons in California.

The statement, released on Ash Wednesday, especially reflects the concerns of five bishops in Baja California and the state of Sonora, according to Father Ricardo A. Chavez, director of Hispanic Affairs for the California Catholic Conference in Sacramento.

"The statement is certainly direct," Chavez said in a telephone interview. "This is an opportunity to clear the air. The bishops in Mexico, where the great majority of people are Catholic, are very sensitive about efforts to win people away."

News Network International, an evangelical agency based in Santa Ana, said the animosity has translated in some cases recently into attacks on evangelical missionaries in Mexico, including a Feb. 2 incident in Mexico City in which a prayer meeting was violently broken up by a mob about midnight. The agency said the incidents have received coverage in Mexico City newspapers, with reports containing a variety of charges against the evangelicals ranging from drug-trafficking to attacks against the Catholic community.

In the 1987 U.S. Bishops' National Pastoral Plan for Hispanics, the Jehovah's Witnesses and unnamed Pentecostal churches were accused of proselytizing Latino Catholics. But the recent across-the-border statement added the Mormon and Adventist churches to the list of alleged offenders and raised the number of accusations.

The statement said the low-key evangelization conducted by the ecumenical churches was acceptable. But the bishops said the "sects and new religious groups" exert psychological, moral and economic pressure on would-be converts, manipulate historical and biblical data, tend to be legalistic and hold no appreciation for contemporary values because they believe the end of the world is imminent.

Referring to one conversion tactic, the document said, "Nothing about Catholic teaching and practice is wrong or contrary to the Scriptures, but when improperly explained or misunderstood, it might seem to be so."

To combat the evangelistic forays among Spanish-speaking Catholics, the bishops recommended door-to-door visits by "zealous" Catholics and greater use of literature, tapes and conferences to teach Catholics how to counter the proselytizing arguments.

The personal attention given by non-Catholic churches was again identified by the bishops as the prime reason for eroding Latino allegiance to Catholicism.

Because most Catholic parishes have large numbers and few priests, the bishops' said "it may be necessary to divide parishes into smaller zones and sectors which can be taken care of by a permanent deacon or lay minister."

Rafael Seminario, a banker who is president of the Mormon Church's 4,000-member Spanish jurisdiction in Los Angeles, said Mormons never let a congregation headed by a lay bishop exceed 600 adults and children. If so, a new congregation is formed, he said. "All the families are visited at least once a month by members of the lay priesthood," he said.

Seminario said the charge that Mormons use coercive conversion methods is belied by the fact of "lawyers, doctors, architects and professionals of all kinds joining the church."

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