updated 9/3/2009 8:43:46 PM ET 2009-09-04T00:43:46

Authorities in Guyana grew "uncomfortable" with the presence of Mormon missionaries who have been ordered to leave the South American country, a governing party leader said Thursday.

About 40 missionaries were briefly detained Wednesday and told to leave within a month as authorities said their travel documents were out of date.

Comments by Donald Ramotar of the governing People's Progressive Party, however, suggested the crackdown went beyond immigration issues.

"While we tolerate all religions, it appears that some officials had become uncomfortable with them around," said Ramotar, the party's general secretary.

Ramotar declined to elaborate. But some government officials and party members said privately that leaders felt the Mormons were too close to opposition figures and also were wary of the church's independent charity work in the interior.

The sources agreed to discuss the matter only if they were not quoted by name because they feared angering their bosses and losing their jobs.

Links to opposition?
Church spokesman Leslie Sobers also raised the issue, saying he thought the government might have been uneasy over perceived links between the Mormons and the opposition.

He said opposition legislator Volda Lawrence traveled to Utah as a guest of the church two years ago, although the church also invited the pro-government head of the race commission, Juan Edghill, to visit.

A lawyer for the church, Nigel Hughes, expressed puzzlement over the deportation order.

"This whole thing is very strange. These people have about $2 million in property in Guyana, do great missionary work and cultivate farms in the country. Why then expel them?" Hughes said.

The main opposition party said the roundup of the missionaries, mainly U.S. citizens, denied the church workers due process and set a bad example as Guyana complains to neighboring countries about the deportation of Guyanese citizens.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been sending missionaries to this former British colony for more than 20 years. About 100 of them are now in Guyana, many of them deep in the country's interior where the government has little presence.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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