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SALT LAKE CITY — Two Latter-day Saint volunteers detained in Russia will be coming home after nearly three weeks in jail, according to an emailed statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Kole Brodowski, 20, was nearing the end of his service when he was detained and will return home to California. Elder David Gaag, 19, will return to the United States for a short time, "receive any needed support" and then continue his service in a new mission, the church said.
"While in detention, the volunteers were treated very well and maintained regular contact with their families and mission president. The church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law," church spokesman Eric Hawkins said.
Udo Gaag, David's father, told KSL Newsradio on Wednesday that David was flying from Russia to the U.S. and was in good spirits.
"We are thrilled, we are grateful about everything that has happened," Udo Gaag said. "We’re not happy about what happened. We’re still thinking maybe it was a big mistake or something. But we’re thrilled and we’re grateful for the support we received in David and his companion."
In a prepared statement provided to media, Gaag's parents said they were happy their son had been released from custody.
"He is happy that the detention is over but sad to leave his Russian friends," the family statement read. "It is clear to us that he enjoyed his experience serving the Russian people and truly grew to love them.
Local Russian police first arrested the two volunteers during a meeting at a church meetinghouse on March 1 and detained them in Novorossiysk, a city on the Black Sea, the church said.
The two volunteers initially offered to surrender their visas and leave the country during an earlier court hearing, but the deal never materialized. The father of one of the volunteers told reporters that officials believed the elders were teaching English without a license. The pair said they were only conducting a regularly scheduled game night in English.
Russia's state-run news agency, Tass, reported that officials had found two U.S. citizens guilty of violating Russia's entry and exit rules. A Russian Orthodox church official told the news agency that the Latter-day Saints were carrying out religious activities in Russia working as English teachers. Yuri Kozhokin, a representative of the church in Russia, disagreed.
"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," Kozhokin told reporters after a judge upheld the decision to expel one of the two U.S. citizens from Russia.
After about a week of detention, the volunteers learned they would be deported, but it was another two weeks before the church announced they had left the country.
Udo Gaag said the area mission president and his wife were at the detention facility every day to care for the two detained volunteers.
"He basically camped out there, it was incredible the care that he took," he said. "They were there every day and did an amazing job taking care of them."
The mission president and his wife brought pillows, journals and other supplies to Gaag and Brodowski that they didn't have in the detention facility, according to Udo Gaag. They made the three- to four-hour trip from the mission office to the facility where Gaag and Brodowski were being held, Udo Gaag said.
Gaag and Brodowski were taken care of well and ate food that wasn't great, but wasn't bad, Udo Gaag said. The family was able to have short phone calls almost every day with David, Udo Gaag said.
David didn't understand what was happening when he was detained, Udo Gaag said. But he remained confident that he didn't break any rules and that things would resolve eventually, Udo Gaag said.
Utah Rep. Rob Bishop said in a statement he was "pleased" to learn the two volunteers had been released safely.
"I admire their willingness to serve their fellow man and wish them the very best," he said in a statement. "I am also proud to come from a place where the spirit of volunteerism and missionary work is so interwoven into the fabric of our youth."
In July 2016, Russia implemented an anti-terrorism law that banned public missionary work. The church instead redesignated their missionaries in the country to volunteers and instructed the young men and women there to follow the law and only proselytize in houses of worship.
A former Latter-day Saint volunteer who also served in the same area as the two elders said detentions were fairly routine, but that he never felt unsafe.
The U.S. State Department was also aware that that the volunteers were being detained, and both Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, reached out to the department and the church to inform and offer assistance.
Contributing: Tadd Walch, Deseret News; Andrew Hull, KSL Newsradio; Carter Williams, KSL.com; Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com