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A top leader with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged members to make the faith an “oasis of unity” and celebrate diversity during a speech Saturday at the faith’s signature conference being held without attendees.

The speech was delivered as many of the faith’s 16.6 million adherents worldwide live through a reckoning over racial injustice, especially in the United States where the police killing of Black man George Floyd sparked massive protests.

Top Mormon leaders’ comments on race amid protests

Quentin L. Cook, a member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, didn’t mention the protests fueled by Black Lives Matter groups but made an impassioned plea for the religion to become a big tent for people of all racial and cultural backgrounds.

More: Latter-day Saints leader backs peaceful efforts to combat racism

“We are all aware that we can do better, and that is our challenge in this day. We can be a force to lift and bless society as a whole,” Cook said. “At this 200-year hinge point in our church history let us commit ourselves as members of the Lord’s church to live righteously and be united as never before.”

He added: “With our all-inclusive doctrine, we can be an oasis of unity and celebrate diversity. We can achieve greater unity as we foster an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for diversity.

It echoed messaging from church President Russell M. Nelson who since taking over in 2018 has preached for more racial harmony and mutual respect. Nelson has launched a formal partnership with the NAACP.

Cook did not mention the church’s past ban on Black men in the lay priesthood, a prohibition rooted in the belief that black skin was a curse. The ban stood until 1978 and lingers as one of the most sensitive topics in the faith’s history.

FILE – In this Oct. 5, 2019, file photo, The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square perform during The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ twice-annual church conference in Salt Lake City. The annual Christmas concert by the choir has been cancelled because of lingering concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The cancellation of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s holiday concert announced Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, by church officials is the latest sign that disruptions to normal religious activity will continue through the holidays. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) (Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP)

The church disavowed the ban and the reasons behind it in a 2013 essay — explaining that it was put into place during an era of great racial divide that influenced the church’s early teachings. But the church has never issued a formal apology for the ban, a sore spot for some of its members.

The Utah-based religion doesn’t provide ethnic or racial breakdowns of its members, but scholars say Black members make up a small portion of the global faith.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on worship

Cook’s speech came after other leaders called the coronavirus pandemic that has limited normal worship activities around the world a test that will help people grow spiritually.

Nelson said the pandemic and wildfires have “turned the world upside down” and offered condolences for those whose loved ones have died. But he said the challenges offer a unique opportunity for the religion’s members.

“I pray that we as a people are using this unique time to grow spiritually,” Nelson said. “We are here on earth to be tested, to see if we will choose to follow Jesus Christ, to repent regularly, to learn, and to progress. Our spirits long to progress. And we do that best by staying firmly on the covenant path”

Nelson and the other 14 top leaders sat six feet apart on a stage alongside floral arrangements and a podium for speakers in a theater at church headquarters in Salt Lake City. They wore masks when they weren’t speaking, each sitting in elegant dark red chairs. Many of the leaders are older than 70, including the 96-year-old Nelson.

Church members are tuning in from their homes to hear top leaders provide spiritual guidance as members try to navigate a difficult 2020.

More: LDS missionaries transition online amid coronavirus pandemic

This is the second consecutive conference being held without an audience after the April event marked the first time that occurred in more than 70 years. The only previous time the church conference was held without people in attendance was during World War II because of wartime travel restrictions.

The conference normally brings some 100,000 people to the church conference center in Salt Lake City. Leaders give speeches over five sessions spread over two days.

David A. Bednar, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, told members to view the pandemic as a student would view an unexpected test. As an example, he said his family carefully examined their food storage items that the faith teachers members to have in case of emergencies or natural disasters.

He joked that he and his wife found some food containers in a closet so old that they feared they would unleash another global pandemic if they opened them.

“I pray that we as individuals and families are learning the valuable lessons that only challenging experiences can teach us,” Bednar said.

With the U.S. presidential election next month, some members will be tuning in as they decide whether to vote for Republican President Donald Trump, diagnosed this week with COVID-19, or Democrat Joe Biden, a former vice president.

While church leaders sometimes weigh in about what they consider crucial moral issues and have called for an end to people staking out extreme positions, they are careful not to endorse candidates or parties. Church members have historically leaned heavily Republican, but the GOP grip on the faith’s voters has slipped slightly with Trump leading the GOP, according to the Pew Research Center.

During the 2016 presidential election, the church defended religious liberty after Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the U.S.

Church leader Patrick Kearon made a brief mention of the current political climate in the conference’s opening prayer when he said, “We yearn for a return to grace, dignity and civility in public life.”

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