A nation where 'the elect are drawn like magnets'

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Decades of communist rule did much to disappoint and disillusion many about religion in the Czech Republic. But for others, it prompted questions and attuned their ears to hear more clearly the "voice of gladness."

"You'll never find better faith than those you meet here," said President C. Richard Chidester of the Czech Republic Prague Mission.

The Czech Republic is part of the former Czechoslovakia. It became an independent country on Jan. 1, 1993, when it separated peacefully from Slovakia. The capital, Prague, is a city rich in history. Here Baroque architecture and the Middle Ages are a way of life, and the splendors of the Hapsburgs live on.

In the 12 years since the missionaries arrived in May 1990 — following a 40-year absence — Church growth has been steady.

Two districts comprise the Czech Republic Prague Mission, the Prague District with seven branches, and the Brno District with 10 branches, with a combined membership of 2,000.

"Many people say they are atheists," said President Chidester, "but they really mean they don't believe in religion.

"But the elect are drawn like magnets," President Chidester said. "We're baptizing quality people, not large numbers. In spite of the challenges, the elect come forth."

One of the challenges faced in modern Czech Republic, said President Chidester, is the loss of concern and interest for each other. "Families are not a priority here," he said. "In a recent public opinion poll, the importance of families ranked fifth on a list of concerns."

Contrary to national trends, President Chidester tells of miracles, like the young man who was recently baptized and is eager to serve a mission. "'Now,' he said, " 'I know who I am. I wonder how I ever got up in the morning before my baptism.' "

Another investigator was recently challenged to be baptized. "The investigator agreed, but didn't want to wait. After seeing the font, the investigator asked, 'Why can't I be baptized right now?'

"They are hungry for the gospel. I could tell experience after experience," said President Chidester, "like the daughter of a branch clerk. The father didn't want to impose his faith and allowed the missionaries to teach her. She devoured the gospel when the missionaries taught her. She soon brought friends to be taught."

Members in the Czech Republic who joined before the communist era maintained their faith at the peril of their lives. After missionaries were forced from the country, contact with the Church was minimal. The approximately 300 members relied on prayers and each other.

When the winds of political change began to blow in the latter 1980s, the Church approached the government with a request to be recognized, just as they had on previous occasions.

"Don't send an American, a German or a Swiss," government officials said. "Send a Czech."

This was a perilous request for local members. Open acknowledgement of membership was punishable by imprisonment. Still, Jiri Snederfler, Czechoslovakia district president, accepted the assignment to present the request on Feb. 6, 1990.

"He told his wife he didn't know when, or if, he would come back. But he said he loved the gospel and was seeking for the recognition the Church had once enjoyed," said President Thomas S. Monson, then second counselor in the First Presidency.

Government officials heard his request, then deliberated. Recognition that was first granted to the Church in 1928 was officially renewed on Feb. 21, 1990. The Czechoslovakia Prague Mission was reorganized July 1, 1990, with Richard W. Winder as president. He had served as a missionary in Czechoslovakia 40 years earlier.

For more than a decade, members and missionaries have helped build a new spirit in a charming but spiritually weary land.

"I'm very positive about the future," President Chidester said. "I don't know better saints. They are truly converted."

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