This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Two Mormons who were detained in Russia and accused of violating immigration laws have been released and are returning home to the United States.
Americans Kole Brodowski, 20, and David Gaag, 19, “have been released” and were returning to the United States, Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in an e-mail to RFE/RL on March 20.
Russian media reports said the two men had been deported. The regional news site Novaya Kuban quoted unnamed sources as saying they took a predawn flight from the southern city of Krasnodar to Istanbul and would travel from there to New York.
Brodowski and Gaag, described by the church as “volunteers,” were detained by the authorities on March 1 “while engaged in a meeting at a local meetinghouse” in the Black Sea coastal city Novorossiisk, Hawkins told RFE/RL in a previous statement.
A court in Novorossiisk ruled on March 7 that the two U.S. citizens must be deported for what it called violations of immigration laws.
The detentions come with growing scrutiny within Russia on religious groups that don’t qualify as one of the four formally recognized religions.
Freedom of religion is formally guaranteed in Russia, but the Russian government and the dominant Russian Orthodox Church frown on proselytizing by foreign-based religious communities.
Russian law sets out Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four traditional religions, and other faiths — including U.S.-based Christian communities — often face discrimination or restrictive action by state authorities.
Russia outlawed the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, declaring it “extremist,” and the group says that seven of its members in Russia were tortured by law enforcement officers in the Siberian city of Surgut in mid-February.
A Danish Jehovah’s Witness, Dennis Christensen, was convicted on February 6 of “organizing the activity of an extremist organization” and sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the western city of Oryol.
In its annual report on human rights around the world, issued on March 13, the U.S. State Department said that human rights abuses in Russia included “severe restrictions on religious freedom.”
While in custody, Brodowski and Gaag “were treated very well and maintained regular contact with their families and mission president,” Hawkins said in the March 20 e-mail.
“The church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law,” he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, has long been a presence in Russia, with members teaching English classes and proselytizing.
According to church figures, registered Mormons grew from 300 in 1991 — the year the Soviet Union collapsed — to more than 14,000 a decade later. Today, the church claims 23,000 adherents in Russia.
Brodowski was “nearing the end of his service” and would return home to the state of California, Hawkins said.
Gaag “will return to the United States for a short time, receive any needed support, and then continue his service in a new mission,” he said.