A former pilot from Germany has joined the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by becoming one of the Mormons' "12 apostles."
Dieter Uchtdorf's appearance doesn't immediately hint at anything unusual. This 64-year old, who worked as chief pilot for Germany's Lufthansa airline dresses conservatively but smartly. His countenance is one of open acceptance. He could be any ex-professional retiree. But Uchtdorf is something a little out of the ordinary. He is Germany's first Mormon "apostle."
According to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) -- the official title of the Mormons -- God chooses "apostles" to lead the church in modern times as he did in the time of the bible. The church has a head "prophet" and president, the American Gordon B. Hinckley.
It was Hinckley and the 12th leadership committee who decided that Uchtdorf would be one of the 12 "apostles" who act under the presidency of the church. A new appointment to this position comes after the death of a previous member and so it was with Uchtdorf's appointment.
Uchtdorf's rise to the upper echelons of the LDS Church is one marked by great upheaval in his life. He was twice a refugee as a child; firstly as an expellee from the former Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II and again in 1951 when his family had to flee East Germany because of his father's political leanings.
Brought up in a Lutheran setting, Uchtdorf was converted to the Mormons by a family friend. During his youth, he experienced the usual teasing and isolation although his beliefs helped him during his compulsory military service.
"The army was just very glad to have driver who didn't drink alcohol," he told DPA news service.
In later life and during his professional career, Uchtdorf said he experienced mild curiosity and respect from his peers.
There are just 40,000 members of the LDS Church in Germany and the church has found itself labeled a sect by many, a title that Uchtdorf rejects.
"A sect would be something which has split from the church," Uchtdorf said. "We want to reunite the church."
The modern day Mormons grew from the creation of the LDS Church in 1820 when it was founded by the first "prophet" Joseph Smith, who translated the Book of Mormon -- an alternative account of the life of Jesus written by ancient prophets -- and set-up the basis for the worldwide organization which now boasts 12 million members.
Mormons strictly adhere to the Ten Commandments.
"For us, these 10 orders are God's reality," Uchtdorf said, adding that the family is sacred. Mormons also oppose gambling, abortions, sex before marriage and drugs of any kind, including alcohol and cigarettes and even coffee and tea. While some radical Mormons also practice polygamy, the official church opposes this.
Certain aspects of the LDS Church repeatedly come under criticism mainly from the Protestant and Catholic churches, something that Uchtdorf said he finds hypocritical.
"If you want to know the truth about the SPD (Germany's Social Democrats), you don't ask the CDU (the conservative opposition)," he said.
Uchtdorf added that he believes that it is much easier to be a Mormon in the United States than it is in Germany and the rest of Europe. The freedom to worship is more accepted in the US due to Europe's history of the state abusing the power of religion, according to Uchtdorf.
He also said he believes that Germany could learn a lot from the Mormons, in particular the rediscovery of the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the family. But the United States, he added, could also learn how to be more supportive and how to reduce its egoism.