Because of what Russian officials are calling a "visa technicality," two more LDS missionaries left the country to serve in the Ukraine last Friday.
The two missionaries were part of the group of six missionaries detained by Russian authorities several weeks ago in the Russia Samara Mission regarding the status of their visas. They were released a few hours later; however, courts in Samara ordered the six missionaries deported and banned from Russia for five years.
Five missionaries were transferred to Russian-speaking missions outside the country while a sister missionary near the end of her mission went back home to the United States.
This event comes after Russia recently enacted a new law aimed at combatting terrorism that restricts the ability of religious organizations to preach outside of houses of worship.
As a result of this new law, missionaries in Russia are now called volunteers. The Church made an official statement, saying, "The Church will honor, sustain and obey the law. Missionaries will remain in Russia and will work within the requirements of these changes. The Church will further study and analyze the law and its impact as it goes into effect."
On the Russian Mormon Newsroom, Church leaders clarified the situation in Samara in an official statement. A translation of the news release reads:
“On Thursday, August 25, some media published information about the deportation of foreign volunteers who are in the Russian Federation at the invitation of Local Religious Organizations Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the city of Samara.
"These data contain a number of inaccuracies, and are not completely reliable.”
Included in these inaccuracies were claims that the missionaries failed to register with migration authorities. However, the Church statement on Mormon Newsroom states that "Registration with the migration authorities at any of the said addresses was fully in accordance with the effective laws. Samara courts decided that these U.S. citizens should have been registered at the addresses where they lived. However, even in this particular instance, the court-imposed administrative penalty to expel them from Russia is clearly disproportionate. The religious association is considering appealing these court rulings."
In a phone call to his parents, one of the missionaries, Elder Drake Oldham, was heartbroken when he told his parents he couldn't return to Russia for five years.
"He got very emotional about that," Troy Oldham, Elder Oldham's father, told 2 KUTV News. Troy Oldham continued to say how Elder Oldham was cautious and strove to obey the laws in Russia. "A lot of things that he said was, 'It's really, really important that we obey all the rules. It's for our safety.'"
However, the initial appeals of the deportation orders were rejected in a regional court.
The Church statement on Mormon Newsroom emphasizes that “Volunteers of the Church throughout the world are following the example of Jesus Christ. They devote two years of their lives volunteering activity carried out on a voluntary basis. Volunteers independently finance their service and do not receive payment for it. Upon returning home, throughout their lives, they are ambassadors and defenders of the country in which they served.
“Church leaders are concerned about frequent fact distortion and biased coverage by the media activities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Believers are entitled to respect from the media and the public.”