SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Mormon church could name as many as three new high-ranking leaders at a Utah conference this weekend, and scholars predict that for the first time ever, at least one could be from outside North America and Europe.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints needs the new leaders to fill vacancies on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a governing body that sets church policy and runs the faith's business operations. Only one of its current members is from outside the U.S.
Speculation about someone being named from a new region is ratcheting up anticipation among Latter-day Saints for what already is a rare occurrence: three board openings at once.
It's been six years since a new quorum member was chosen, and more than a decade since the leadership council had two openings. The last time there were three was in 1906.
Quorum members serve until they die, and three recent deaths created the unprecedented void.
The new names are expected to be announced Saturday during a twice-yearly church conference in Salt Lake City. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to attend sessions over two days, and millions more will watch live broadcasts of the speeches.
"There's going to be Mormons everywhere glued to their television sets or computer screens," said Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, a volunteer organization that supports the church.
Church President Thomas S. Monson, considered the religion's prophet, chooses quorum members through divine inspiration, according to church beliefs.
Modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles, the group serves under the church president and his two counselors. New members start as junior members, but they could someday become church president because the group's longest-tenured member ascends to president when the current one dies.
Monson may tap somebody from Latin America or Africa as an acknowledgement that more than half of the faith's 15 million reported members now live outside the United States, church scholars said.
That move would create a strong, visible symbol of the church's global aspirations and give Mormons from other regions a quorum member to call their own, said Armand Mauss, retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.
If somebody from Latin America is named, which Mauss said is a probability, that would "give each member from the southern hemisphere of the world a specific 'model' to identify with and aspire to in his or her own religious commitments."
The one member of the current board from outside the United States is Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who was born in Czechoslovakia and raised in Germany. A total of 14 members of the quorum and first presidency have been born outside the U.S. since the church was founded in 1830, according to church officials.
Two people who seem to be likely candidates from Latin America are Ulisses Soares and Cláudio R. M. Costa, both from Brazil, said Matthew Bowman, associate professor of history at Henderson State University. From Africa, two names to watch are Edward Dube of Zimbabwe and Joseph W. Sitati of Kenya, he said.
All four serve on a second-tier group of church leaders called the Quorum of the Seventy, which has been a farm system in recent decades for future leaders.
The last nine men selected for the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dating back to 1985 previously served in the Quorum of the Seventy or a group just below it. The last two people tabbed from elsewhere were Russell M. Nelson, a heart surgeon; and Dallin H. Oaks, who was a Utah Supreme Court justice. They were both chosen in 1984.
One name not expected to be called is that of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Though he's well-regarded by Mormons and more than qualified, scholars say the church prefers to keep the leadership council politically neutral. Romney's close ties to a specific political group would be a concern, Mauss said.
"There is a certain taint to that, which takes a little time to wear off," he said.