Washington • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says two missionaries serving in Russia will be deported after a court there ordered their removal.
“At this time, they remain in custody while their deportation is being processed," church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement Thursday evening. “The young men are in good spirits, are being treated well, and are in regular contact with their mission president and their families.”
The church, Hawkins said, is working with local Russian authorities and "we remain hopeful these volunteers will be allowed to leave the country soon. In the meantime, we are grateful for the many offers of assistance and support expressed on their behalf.”
A Russian court had ordered the deportation of the two Americans — referred to as “volunteers” because Russia doesn’t allow outside foreign religious groups to proselytize — after authorities say they were teaching English without a license and violating terms of their visas.
The church has denied any wrongdoing by the pair.
On Thursday, a regional court upheld a lower court on deporting the two volunteers. Tass, a state-run news outlet, reported the court rulings.
The State Department said it is aware of the detention in Russia, adding that there is no “higher priority” than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad.
The two volunteers were detained last Friday in the Black Sea port city of Novorossiysk while at a church building. The Moscow Times previously had reported the two may be deported, though because of a holiday Friday and the upcoming weekend, the duo may be stuck in detention until next week.
“We are aware of reports of two U.S. citizens detained in Novorossiysk, Russia,” a State Department spokesperson said Thursday on background. “We have no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad.
“Due to privacy considerations," the spokesperson added, “we do not have any additional information at this time.”
The White House and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow referred questions to the State Department. U.S. Ambassador to Russia, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, is a former missionary for the Salt Lake City-based faith.
President Donald Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted his concern about the detention by Russian authorities.
“Terrible,” the son tweeted. “I know many great Mormon families with children who are missionaries or who have done missions. That they would be held for doing this and their numerous other charitable deeds is sickening!”
Utah’s senators, Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, said Thursday they were aware of the dispute but declined to comment.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, tweeted that he was ready to help seek the release of the two Latter-day Saint volunteers.
“I’m extremely troubled by reports of volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being detained in Russia,” Curtis wrote. “I’m in communication [with] those connected to the situation & stand ready to be helpful however possible as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.”
Russia prohibits proselytizing by outside religious groups and the LDS Church rebranded missionaries in the country as “volunteers” to comply with the dictate. The church also reduced the number of missions in the country.
Tass quoted Russian Orthodox Church official Dmitry Kravchenko as saying the area’s diocese is concerned Latter-day Saints have ramped up their efforts to influence Russians in the area.
“They start with English language courses. The guys usually come from the U.S., they are native speakers, which attracts people, and then, after a few classes, they start to insert certain religious themes into their texts,” Kravchenko is quoted as saying.
The government-controlled news outlet added that a representative of the LDS Church, Yuri Kozhokin, said the two detained Latter-day Saints were not teachers but volunteers.
"They just talked with Russian citizens who came to see them on their own accord,” Tass quoted the official as saying. “They just talked about various topics unrelated to religion, got to know one another, but they talked to each other in English.”
One of the fathers of the two men sought prayers in a Facebook post.
“They were in the church building and arrested during their English class,” wrote Kyle Brodowski, the father of missionary/volunteer Kole Brodowski. “It has been difficult to understand, and is becoming more complicated each day.”
According to Kyle Brodowski, the mission president “is doing everything possible to gain their release, all we can do is pray.”
In an earlier dispute between Russian authorities and the church, two volunteers were deported over a disagreement about their registration. They were reassigned to Ukraine and completed their volunteer service.
In 2017, Russia’s Constitutional Court ruled that those two had been wrongly deported.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, The Tribune’s owner and publisher, is a brother of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman.