This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Russia says two U.S. citizens detained in the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk will be deported for alleged violations of immigration laws.
The Interfax news agency on March 7 identified the two as Kole Brodowski and David Udo Hague and said they had been ordered to leave Russia by a Novorossiisk court.
It described them as volunteers with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons.
“I can confirm reports of the detention of U.S. citizens for breach of migration laws,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Zakharova added that two other U.S. citizens had been deported from the same region, but it was not immediately clear to whom she was referring.
In a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL, Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S.-based church, said two of its volunteers “remain in custody while their deportation is being processed.”
“The young men are in good spirits, are being treated well, and are in regular contact with their mission president and their families. We continue to work with local authorities in Russia 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,” Hawkins wrote
Hawkins said the two were detained by authorities on March 1 “while engaged in a meeting at a local meetinghouse.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow “will be following this case closely and will provide all appropriate consular assistance,” a State Department spokesman told RFE/RL, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Due to privacy considerations, we do not have any additional information at this time.”
A television station in Utah, where the Mormon church is headquartered, said the father of one of those detained, identified as Brodowski, had posted a message to Facebook saying his son was detained while teaching an English class.
The Mormons have long been a presence in Russia, teaching English classes and proselytizing.
According to church figures, the number of registered Mormons grew from 300 in 1991 to more than 14,000 a decade later. Today, the church claims 23,000 adherents in Russia.
The detentions come with growing scrutiny within Russia on religious groups that don’t qualify as one of the four religions formally recognized.
Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia, but legislation sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four traditional religions.
Other major Christian denominations like the Roman Catholic Church have also been allowed to operate openly and largely without restrictions, though the Vatican and Russian Orthodox leaders have clashed in the past over ownership of church property dating back to the Bolshevik Revolution.
But denominations with a smaller presence in Russia — Baptists, Pentecostalists, Mormons, and others — have long been viewed with hostility from state officials and religious authorities. Many have long complained that the 1997 law setting up registration and administrative procedures were onerous and expensive to comply with.
A measure signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in 2016 put further restrictions on smaller religious groups.
In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses — a U.S. based denomination that has long been viewed with suspicion by some governments for its members’ positions on military service, voting, and government authority in general — should be classified as an extremist group, and ordered it banned.