SALT LAKE CITY — Two young Latter-day Saint volunteers who local police have detained in Russia since last week are being deported, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Many people have reached out regarding the status of our two volunteers in Russia. At this time, they 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," said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.
"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.”
Local Russian police arrested the two volunteers during a meeting at a church meetinghouse in Novorossiysk last Friday, the church said.
Russia's state-run news agency, Tass, reported Thursday that Novorossiysk’s Primorsky District Court found two U.S. citizens guilty of violating Russia’s entry and exit rules on March 2. Novorossiysk, a port city on the Black Sea, is 930 miles south of Moscow.
The young men are currently being held at a temporary reception center for foreigners in the town of Gulkevichi, waiting to be deported, according to Tass. Gulkevichi is about 196 miles northeast of Novorossiysk.
Tass also reported that a Russian Orthodox Church official told the news agency that Latter-day Saints are carrying out religious activities in Russia working as English teachers.
Yuri Kozhokin, a representative in Russia of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told Tass that the two men being detained were not teachers.
"They just talked with Russian citizens who came to see them on their own accord. They just talked about various topics unrelated to religion, got to know one another, but they talked to each other in English. … I know this from the practices stipulated in the organization’s bylaws," he told reporters on the outcomes of the Krasnodar Regional Court’s session, during which the judge upheld the decision to expel one of the two U.S. citizens from Russia, according to Tass.
Sergei Glizuntsa, an attorney for the two men, told Tass they have no complaints about the conditions of their detention.
"They have no complaints. This is like a dorm of sorts, with 10 people in one room with double beds. They are fed three times a day. There are no significant concerns. We’ve managed to give them their things. The conditions of their detention are satisfactory, the staff’s attitude is normal, we visit them every day," the lawyer said.
The father of one of the volunteers told the Deseret News on Tuesday that the two young men were doing well. He said officials believed that the volunteers were teaching English without a license. The two men said they only were conducting a regularly scheduled game night in English.
In July 2016, Russia implemented an anti-terrorism law that included a provision banning public missionary work. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints immediately complied, redesignating its young missionaries as volunteers and directing them to follow the law's provision that all proselytizing take place in houses of worship.
The U.S. State Department said Wednesday it was aware of the reports that two U.S. citizens were detained in Novorossiysk, Russia.
"We have no higher priority than the protection of U.S. citizens abroad. Due to privacy considerations, we do not have any additional information at this time," according to a State Department statement.
Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee and Rep. John Curtis also offered their assistance.
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