A new law will regulate religious work and proselytizing in Russia, but the Mormon church says missionaries will remain there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law Thursday an anti-terrorism measure that seeks to increase phone and social media surveillance, as well as penalties for online extremism. The measure, which takes effect July 20, also limits proselytizing by religious groups outside of officially designated sites.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement Friday, noting that missionaries "will honor, sustain and obey the law" and "work within the requirements of these changes."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned the law in a news release Friday, calling it a "guise" that authorizes "sweeping powers to curtail civil liberties."
People who conduct religious missionary work — including preaching, praying and disseminating materials — in private residences can be fined up to $15,000 and may be deported under the new law. Religious groups, such as the Mormon church, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslim organizations, also must be registered to operate in the country. USCIRF worries that dissidents will be imprisoned; it said the law makes it "very difficult for religious groups to operate."
Matt Martinich, an independent LDS researcher and project manager of The Cumorah Foundation, said the Mormon church has had a "pretty challenging time proselytizing in Russia since the beginning" of its presence there. The church, he said, has the largest full-time missionary presence of any religion in the country, but relatively few conversions and baptisms.
The country recognized the church in May 1991 and since has put up "hurdles" for getting building permits, bringing in missionaries and obtaining visas, Martinich said. The seven missions in the country are "minimally staffed," he added, with as few as 30 missionaries per mission, compared with the 100 to 200 for missions in other countries.
The LDS Church has 100 congregations and 22,720 members in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country of 143 million people, according to data from mormonnewsroom.org.
The church concluded its statement Friday by saying it will "further study and analyze the law and its impact as it goes into effect."