Mormon missionaries in Kosovo

(Seyward Darby)

“Those look tempting.” Alex Peterson, a lanky blond 19-year-old from Salt Lake City, pointed toward a bloc of gray apartment buildings nestled on a hill in Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo. It was a Friday morning in July. Peterson and his colleague Tanner Racine, from Idaho and also 19, entered one of the concrete buildings and walked up several flights of stairs to the top floor. Choosing a door in a dark hallway, the young men knocked. No answer. “A lot of the time, it’s a waiting game,” Peterson said with a shrug. Just then, a man stepped outside an apartment across the hall. Peterson and Racine greeted him in practiced Albanian, the local language. They pointed to their name-tags—“Elder Pitërsën” and “Elder Rejsin”—and held up a navy-blue copy of Libri i Mormonit. The man shook his head, said something in Albanian, and headed down the stairs. “That guy said he doesn’t believe in God,” Peterson explained. “You get that a lot with the older generation.”

So began a typical day for a pair of Mormon missionaries in Kosovo. The small country of 2 million people emerged from an inter-ethnic war 13 years ago and unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It is a post-conflict environment in every sense of the phrase: corruption, unemployment, and infrastructure deficiencies, such as unreliable water and electricity, are common. There are also bouts of violence, including in Mitrovica, a town in Kosovo’s north still divided between Albanians and Serbs.

Just over a year ago, the LDS Church established its presence in Pristina. There are, thus far, only six missionaries total in the country. They have a small office and worship space—a storefront church of sorts, with a picture of Jesus in the window—off an unpaved road near the city’s center. On Sundays, they host services for about a dozen people, including the missionaries. They move a ping-pong table out of the way in one corner of their facility to make way for a piano and chairs.

The story of the LDS Church in Kosovo, however, is not just that of an institution finding its footing in a post-war context. It is also one of a new entrant into Kosovo’s already complex religious landscape. There are many non-believers here, like the man Peterson and Racine met in the hallway, whose atheism likely reflects the lingering influence of Kosovo’s decades spent as part of socialist Yugoslavia. There is also a small Catholic community that is constructing a church in downtown Pristina named in honor of Mother Theresa, perhaps the world’s most famous Albanian. Yet Kosovo is predominantly a Muslim country. Most people are not diligent in their practice of Islam, thinking of their religion more as a piece of cultural and historical identity. Still, mosques are sprinkled throughout the country, calls to prayer echo in Pristina each day, and an increasing number of women wear headscarves.

Moreover, Kosovo’s Muslim heritage is deeply intertwined with the country’s resistance toward Slobodan Milosevic’s government in Belgrade in the 1990s. Although the conflict between Albanians and Serbs was rooted primarily in ethnicity and nationalism rather than religion, the former group was Muslim and the latter, Orthodox Christian. Hundreds of mosques were destroyed or damaged in the 1999 war, which ended with NATO intervention; since then, Orthodox churches and monasteries have occasionally been attacked and vandalized. It is no surprise, then, that some Kosovars are wary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “A lot of people see ‘Jesus Christ’ and associate it with the conflict with Serbia,” Peterson said.

In other words, the Mormons, in their standard white shirts, ties, and dark slacks, are new and curious additions to Kosovo’s religious milieu. Peterson and Racine both left home a few months ago for their mission, the standard two years of service for devout Mormon young people. (Mitt Romney, perhaps America’s most famous Mormon, spent two years on a mission in France before attending Brigham Young University.) Peterson and Racine were sent to the Balkans by a prophet of the LDS church who prayed over their application for service in order to determine the best placement. They spent three months studying language and culture before coming and began their mission in Albania, which has a larger LDS presence than Kosovo. Now they spend their days in Pristina “tracting,” or going from door to door with The Book of Mormon, and proselytizing in the streets. Most of the time, they do not have much luck.

On that Friday morning in July, Peterson and Racine’s efforts were often rebuffed by people saying they were Muslim and not interested. In fact, it was Ramadan; many people were resting and preparing to break the fast that evening. One man claimed the Mormons had already come to his door, and Racine said he must have confused them with “J-Dubs”—that is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also have a small presence in the country.

The Mormons began their work in Kosovo for the same reason they do in most countries: to share their religious message and grow the church. Andrew Ford, the president of the LDS Adriatic South Mission that encompasses Kosovo, says the country is “just another place, and we’re used to all sorts of places,” noting that he has found most Muslims to be welcoming of the missionaries. Yet Peterson and Racine said some people, particularly older or more devout Muslim ones, can be hostile toward them. Antagonistic encounters happen frequently enough that, when one older man opened his door wearing a qeleshe, a traditional Albanian skullcap, Peterson said his first thought was a cringing one: “Please don’t yell at me.”

The missionaries do have some things working in their favor. They are American, and Kosovars love the United States, thanks to its support for ending the 1999 war. A statue of Bill Clinton greets people entering Pristina, and some locals jest that Kosovo should become the 51st U.S. state. Peterson and Racine benefit from Kosovo’s affection for the U.S. when they meet people eager to talk to Americans. “There are times when we knock on doors and they say, ‘We’re not interested in your religious message, but come inside and talk,’” Peterson said.  

The missionaries also do not have to contend with the preconceived notions people in other parts of the world may have about Mormons, since their faith is not well-known inside Kosovo. Certainly, they garner many curious glances in the streets (and the occasional, joking cry of “CIA!”). Yet they have been asked about polygamy only once—and it was by an American working in Pristina.

As lunchtime approached, Peterson and Racine stood in the middle of Pristina’s largest pedestrian boulevard. Having more or less struck out at the apartments, they had achieved moderate success with just one person on the street: a professor of Albanian who stopped because he was interested in reading their book. They had a devoted fan, however, in a young Romani boy, one of several who plays metal hand-drums in the streets of Pristina each day hoping for a few coins from passersby. (The Roma, often called Gypsies, are Eastern Europe’s most marginalized ethnic minority.) He dashed up in dirty pink Crocs to Peterson and Racine and slapped hands with both. Then he grabbed Racine’s sports watch, which the missionary wears with the face inside his arm, and adjusted it. “He always turns Elder Racine’s watch around,” Peterson explained. “We know the Roma because they are out here every day and so are we,” Racine added.

Ford is confident that the LDS Church will eventually establish itself more firmly in Kosovo. There are plans to send missionaries to Gjakova, a city southwest of Pristina, and to introduce women (or “sister missionaries”) into the country next year. “[I]n a few short years, I’m expecting the usual set-up, 100 to 150 [people] in a congregation in each of the major towns and cities,” Ford said. “We’ll go slowly and see how it goes.”

Right now, though, the whole endeavor feels like a bit of a long shot given Kosovo’s history and religious landscape. When they are done with their service, Peterson and Racine will return to the U.S. for college; Peterson hopes to attend Utah State, while Racine wants to go to the University of Utah. For now, as missionaries, they seem to have set their expectations according to the inherent challenges of their post. Watching person after person walk past him without stopping to hear what he came to Kosovo to say, Peterson noted, “The goal is to feel like we did everything we could.”

Seyward Darby is a freelance writer currently living in Kosovo. She is working for a local human rights group with support from the Coca-Cola World Fund and Kirby-Simon Fellowship Program at Yale University.