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Russian court rules against deportation of Mormon volunteers

Russian authorities violated the nation's constitution last year when they deported two LDS volunteers, formerly known as missionaries.
Russian authorities violated the nation's constitution last year when they deported two LDS volunteers, formerly known as missionaries.
Bahadir Yeniceri, Adobe Stock

SALT LAKE CITY — A Russian high court ruled Thursday that authorities violated the constitutional rights of two young Mormon volunteers when they expelled the men from the country last year.

The Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation ruled that Elder Nathanael Worden of San Antonio, Texas, and Elder Drake Oldham of North Logan, had properly registered as volunteers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and were not in violation of Russian rules regarding migration registration when they were detained in August 2016.

"It's a win for the church in Russia because it shows that we were treated unconstitutionally, and if the church wants, it can seek to overturn our criminal records, too," Oldham said.

Both Oldham and Worden have completed their volunteer service. Both are engaged to be married and plan to attend college in the fall.

News of the ruling came down exactly one year to the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law that limited missionary work. The law requires any proselyting to happen within houses of worship. Missionary work conducted on the street or in residences can be punished with deportation and fines up to $780 per missionary and $15,500 per church.

After the law went into effect, the LDS Church redesignated all its missionaries in Russia as volunteers and instructed them to obey the law.

Worden and Oldham were not prosecuted under that new law. Instead, Worden said, police in Samara, one of Russia's largest cities, detained Worden and Oldham at their apartment early on the morning of Aug. 5, 2016, alleging that the volunteer companions were improperly registered with migration authorities.

Four other LDS volunteers, two men and two women, ages 19 to 25, were detained the same day and taken to a courthouse on the other side of Samara, Worden said. After several hours of questioning, they were taken to court.

The volunteers, following longstanding practice established by the Russian federal government and the church, which is organized in Russia as a religious association, had registered with migration officials using the address of church headquarters in Samara.

Russian authorities claimed the six volunteers should have re-registered with migration officials each time they were transferred to a new area. Each volunteer had a separate hearing on the afternoon of the same day there were detained. The courts ordered the six volunteers deported, banned them from Russia for five years and fined them about $50 each, Oldham said.

Church attorneys appealed the rulings to a regional court, but they were denied.

The church transferred Worden, Oldham and three other volunteers to its Ukraine Dnepropetrovsk Mission. The sixth volunteer was near the end of her service, and she returned to the United States.

Four of the missionaries signed a paper that made an appeal to the Constitutional Court more difficult. Worden and Oldham refused. Thursday's ruling applied only to them.

Attorneys representing the church told the Constitutional Court that the law used by police and courts in the cases in Samara was ambiguous and that the decision to deport was disproportionate to the alleged offenses.

The Constitutional Court agreed. In its ruling, it suggested that Russian lawmakers review the law to remove the ambiguity.

Worden and Oldham said they hope to return to Russia. They said Americans should not view the country or its people negatively.

Worden is headed to Brigham Young University in the fall, where he will study Russian. After graduation, he plans to attend law school. He said his 18 months in Russia were unforgettable and expressed gratitude for the Constitutional Court's ruling.

"I've never felt greater love for Russia than the day I left," Worden said, "even with how wrongly I knew we'd been treated. I remember our last day in Samara, walking through downtown looking at the beautiful statues and monuments and buildings and the people we'd grown to love so much. I was sad to leave."

Oldham will travel to Europe in the fall as part of his business studies at Utah State University. He'd like to return to Ukraine and Russia to conduct business in the future.

"Russia is a great place," he said. "I love the people, and I love the country."

Both talked about the difficulty of living through the change in Russian law.

"One month our mission leaders were telling us to talk to every single person about the gospel," Oldham said. "The next month we were told, stop talking to people. We were a little bit lost about our purpose for a while. Fortunately we had great priesthood leaders who helped us focus on church members until the law loosened up a little bit and we understood what we could do."

The LDS Church reiterated Thursday that its policy is to ensure that volunteers follow the law while in Russia.

"We … strictly monitor their behavior," the church said in a statement.

The LDS Church has six missions in Russia. It abruptly closed the Russia Vladivostok Mission in May, merging it with the Novosibirsk Mission.

More than 23,000 Mormons worship in 103 Russian congregations.