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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in good health, despite "rumors to the contrary," the church leader said Sunday.
"Skillful doctors and nurses keep me on track and some of you may go before I do," the 96-year-old Hinckley said, drawing laughter from those gathered for the second day of the faith's semi-annual conference.
Hinckley is the 15th president of the church and has served in its top leadership circle for 49 years, at times serving as the de facto president when his predecessors took ill. He ascended to the presidency in 1995.
The April 2006 conference was underscored by speculation about Hinckley's health. Then 95 and recovering from colon cancer surgery, he told Latter-day Saints he was in the "sunset" of his life.
On Sunday, Hinckley repeated a favorite joke, saying that at his age, "the wind is blowing and I feel like the last leaf on the tree."
He then offered followers his testimony of faith, defending the church's central text, the Book of Mormon, as a valid account of Christ's dealings with ancient Americans. Mormons believe church founder Joseph Smith translated the text from a set of gold plates delivered to him by an angel.
"This is all recorded in detail in the Book of Mormon," Hinckley said. "I would think that every Christian would welcome this second witness of the reality of Jesus Christ. Strangely, they do not."
Some mainline religious faiths discount Mormonism as not being a Christian faith, in part because of their reliance on Smith's text. Doctrinally Mormons also differ from other faiths, believing in a preordained existence and that man can progress to a God-like state in heaven.
The debate is a sore spot for the church which in 1995 even altered its logo to place more emphasis on the inclusion of the words "Jesus Christ" in its name.
"I am puzzled by any who question this church's belief in the Bible and our position as Christians," said M. Russell Ballard, a top church leader who added that church leaders quoted from the book more than 200 times at the last conference. "We not only believe in the Bible, we strive to follow its precepts and to teach its message."
Other speakers Sunday called for couples to avoid divorce and to strive for forgiveness despite the anger and bitterness that can follow tragedy.
"Most of us need time to work through pain and loss. We can find all manner of reasons for postponing forgiveness," an emotional James E. Faust, one of two counselors to church President Gordon B. Hinckley said.
Faust pointed to examples of forgiveness from events recent and past. Members of Pennsylvania's Amish community reached out to the family of a man who shot and killed five schoolgirls last fall and Utah's Ceran and Christensen families called for prayers and unconditional forgiveness for the drivers who took the lives of their family members here just a few months ago, he said. And some 27 years ago, the father of a man killed by bomb built by forger Mark Hofmann found peace only after letting go of anger, Faust said.
"If we can find forgiveness in our hearts for those who have caused us hurt, and injury, we will rise to a higher level of self-esteem and well being," Faust said.
The 12.5 million member Utah-based church holds general conference twice yearly, gathering more than 100,000 followers at the conference center to hear spiritual direction and words of inspiration from church leaders. The April and October proceedings are broadcast on television, radio, satellite and over the Internet to 85 countries, simultaneously translated into 89 different languages.
This weekend's event -- the 177th for the church founded April 6, 1830 by Joseph Smith -- was marked by Saturday's reopening of the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Closed since 2005, the home of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir has undergone renovation work and seismic retrofitting to preserve the 140-year-old building and prevent damages in the event of a major earthquake.
Saturday's service there was the first since 1999, when the church opened its 21,000-seat conference center nearby allowing more Latter-day Saints to attend the biannual meetings in person.
With the Tabernacle's reopening, the choir is expected to return there for its weekly television and radio broadcasts of "Music and the Spoken Word," one of the longest, continuous running programs in broadcast history.
On the Net: www.lds.org
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)