When LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson declared April 1 that the Utah-based faith planned to build a temple at a yet-to-be-determined location in Russia, thousands of Mormons gathered in the massive Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City collectively gasped. Was it delight or astonishment?
After all, Mormon missionaries there are forbidden by law to proselytize or even to wear their iconic black name tags. The number of missions has been trimmed from seven to six and permissible preaching drastically reduced to church chapels only.
Weeks after the announcement, though, LDS apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf was in Moscow, urging about 700 Russian Mormons “to prepare their hearts for a new temple,” according to a news release on the church’s newsroom website.
The charismatic German and his wife, Harriet, were there April 22 to speak at a special conference of the faith’s Moscow Russia Stake (region).
The temple announcement “is a historic one, and it’s a beautiful one,” Uchtdorf told Russian journalist and scholar Sergey Georgievich Antonenko, according to the release. “Up until now, if [members] wanted to go to the temple, they had to travel outside of Russia.”
Uchtdorf added: “We’re very grateful for Russia to be a country where religious freedom is established. We may practice our faith here.”
The popular apostle assured the writer that Mormons in Russia are “law-abiding, wonderful citizens” who love the tradition and history of their country.
“We have learned worldwide that it has always been a great blessing for a community to accept and invite a house of the Lord,” Uchtdorf said. “And even though sometimes at the beginning there are critical voices … these critical voices learn that the Mormons are good people. They are people to be trusted.”
Russia has come under fire in the U.S. and elsewhere after President Vladimir Putin signed a stringent anti-terrorism law that severely limited outreach by any religions, save for the Russian Orthodox Church.
The country essentially banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, labeling them “extremist” and ordering the state to seize their properties.
In addition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began calling its missionaries there “volunteers” to navigate the restrictions on proselytizing.
On the heels of these developments and the temple declaration, the visiting Uchtdorfs also met with members and volunteers in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tallinn, Estonia.
“There’s a marvelous excitement among the members,” Uchtdorf said in the news release after his return to Salt Lake City. But he acknowledged “the process of building a temple in Russia will be slow.”
He compared it to what it took to erect a temple in then-East Germany, when that country was behind the so-called Iron Curtain.
Members “waited for a temple forever, but they had current temple recommends,” Uchtdorf said, “and eventually faith was rewarded. And that’s the same thing which will happen in Russia.”
When the Latter-day Saints are ready, he said, “the temple will be ready.”
The couple encouraged young LDS single adults and other members “to stay in their country to build up the church as they did in Germany,” according to the release. “Eastern Europe is losing a lot of good members emigrating, leaving the country.”
Before his international trip, Uchtdorf met in Washington with Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States.
“It was very helpful, because I told him what the church is all about in Russia, and we are just good people,” the apostle said, who “just want to live their faith and want to be good citizens.”
As for which “major” Russian city will host that nation’s first Mormon temple, that has yet to be announced.