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soulmen : IN A QUIET REVOLUTION, MORMONS CARRY NEW VISIONS OF LIFE--AND HEAVEN--TO LATIN AMERICA

June 20, 1993|WILLIAM R. LONG | William R. Long is a Times correspondent in South America and chief of the Buenos Aires Bureau

RATHER THAN SNEAK OVER THE HIGH fence of spiked steel bars outside the Mormon church on Huelen Street, the terrorists boldly rang the bell.

As a cousin went to open the gate, Jose Medina Jr., thinking someone was coming to help with preparations for church services the next day, kept working, setting up folding chairs in a meeting room. Suddenly, someone put a pistol to his neck and ordered him to the floor. When he hesitated, the gunman shoved and kicked him and shouted, "Hurry up. We're in a hurry."

Four intruders splashed Medina and the room with gasoline, threatening to kill him if he fled. Another gunman summoned Medina's sister from a bathroom with a barrage of curses.

Outside the front gate, a fifth man was keeping watch when Jose Medina Sr. arrived on foot from his home a few blocks away. Medina, a 52-year-old carpenter, is the lay bishop of the neighborhood chapel in El Montijo, a working-class neighborhood in Santiago, Chile. As he reached the church, he came face to face with a member of the small but notorious Lautaro terrorist group.

"He told me to get away if I didn't want problems," Medina says. "I told him, 'Look, I'm not going anywhere. You're the one who has to go.'

"I moved in closer. He pulled out a pistol and told me to shut up or he would kill me," Medina says. " 'Get out,' I said. I shoved him with my shoulder. Then he had to shoot. He shot me here, in this part of the leg," Medina says, pulling up his gray pin-striped suit to reveal a small scar on his lower thigh. "It didn't scare me. I knew that the Lord was protecting me."

The gunman seemed almost apologetic. "We don't have anything against you," he told Medina. "We want the Yankees to go home."

"I told him, 'Look, the Yankees don't teach us politics, they teach us spiritual things, things of the Lord.' "

When the gunman fired warning shots into the air, his partners ran from the church, throwing matches on the gasoline they had splashed inside. Flames spread instantly through the building. Medina grabbed a fire extinguisher, and with the help of his son, who escaped the flames, he put out the fire.

Medina, sturdy and gray-haired, has worked with his hands for low wages all his life. He doesn't have a telephone or a car, and he doesn't look like a terrorist target. But he is a Mormon, and Lautaro doctrine categorizes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a tool of Yankee imperialism. The church's young missionaries, increasingly familiar figures throughout Latin America with their white shirts and ties and close-cropped hair, are seen as the insidious harbingers of capitalism. The Lautaros, Chilean revolutionaries known for their hit-and-run bank robberies and for their dedication to the cause of free sex, have made a specialty of bombing, ransacking and burning chapels of the Mormon Church.

Why, I ask, would Lautaro single out the Mormon Church for such attacks? "What I have heard from other people, not from them," Medina says, "is that they have this hate. They think foreigners come to take the country's wealth. They always think Americans come to steal the wealth. They have a veil of ignorance; their minds are totally closed by politics."

Since the early 1980s, when Lautaro first emerged during Chile's military dictatorship, terrorists have set off nearly 300 explosions and fires at Mormon churches in Chile. Medina is the only person who has been seriously injured in the attacks, but total damage is estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. While none of the bombs has been deadly, fires have nearly destroyed four buildings.

Terrorists have also attacked in other Latin American countries. In neighboring Bolivia, two Mormons were killed in 1989, and since then, guerrillas have damaged at least 11 Mormon chapels in Bolivia with dynamite blasts.

Terrorists think the missionaries "are working, as they say, for the psychological and ideological penetration of imperialism into the nation," says Ramiro Donoso, a Bolivian Mormon Church officer. "They see in the Mormon Church a kind of American agency for infiltration and indoctrination."

And, in a sense, that may be true. These missionaries, and many of their converts, are determined to overturn centuries of Latin American tradition--a tradition of almost universal Catholicism--and to remodel lives not only with a new religious doctrine, but also with a new social morality and work ethic. Maybe the Lautaros see that the Mormons, in their own way, are revolutionaries, too. For as radical Marxist movements weaken and retreat across Latin America, the Mormons and other Christian soldiers from the non-traditional Protestant ranks are gaining strength and marching on toward what they envision as a new and startlingly different millennium.

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