SALT LAKE CITY — Local Russian police arrested two young Latter-day Saint volunteers during a meeting at a church meetinghouse on Friday and continue to detain them in Novorossiysk, a city on the Black Sea, according to a church spokesman.
"While we are grateful these young men are reportedly in good condition and are being treated well, we are troubled by the circumstances surrounding their detention," said Eric Hawkins, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "They have both spoken to their parents. We will continue to work with local authorities and encourage the swift release of these volunteers."
A reporter for the Deseret News spoke with the father of one of the volunteers, whose names have not been released while efforts are underway to resolve the issue.
The father said the two young men are doing well. He said the mission president traveled to Novorossiysk and is meeting daily with the volunteers. On Monday, the president of the church's Russia Rostov-na-Donu Mission, where the young volunteers are serving, was allowed to bring his cellphone into the detention facility and have the volunteers call home.
"We’re doing a little better," the father, who lives in the United States told a reporter for the Deseret News. "We talked with the elders, with our son, yesterday, last night. … It was such a relief and so nice. It was really, really a sweet moment. I think he is fine. He told us that they are fine. They’re getting food."
He said a Saturday court hearing, in which the volunteers were represented by attorneys provided by the church, did not resolve the issue. An apparent agreement to have the two volunteers surrender their visas and leave the country did not materialize, which likely meant the two men will remain in detention through the week.
The father said officials believed the volunteers were teaching English without a license. The volunteers said they only were conducting a regularly scheduled game night in English.
"They are just excited to be there and they love the people," the father said. "They just want nothing more than to help them."
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.
However, a few weeks later, in August 2016, local Russian officials detained six American men and women volunteers for the church for a few hours. Courts in Samara eventually ordered the six volunteers, then ages 19 to 25, deported and banned them from Russia for five years, but not for violating the new law. The church transferred five of the volunteers to a nearby Russian-speaking mission outside the country. The other volunteer was near the end of her service, and she returned to the United States.
The church has continued to provide volunteers in the country to support its congregations.
Novorossiysk is 930 miles south of Moscow.