SALT LAKE CITY – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints television station KSL reports that two Church missionaries, or “volunteers” as they’re known in Russia, will be released from jail.
The two elders have been in custody for three weeks, reported KSL. It stated that Elder Kole Brodowski, 20, who was approaching the end of his missionary service when sent to jail, would return home to California. Elder David Gaag, 19, will return stateside for additional support and then reassigned to a new mission.
“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 told KSL.
Gaag’s parents also released a statement.
“We spoke with David and he is healthy and in good spirits. He is happy that the detention is over but sad to leave his Russian friends,” the statement read. “It is clear to us that he enjoyed his experience serving the Russian people and truly grew to love them.
“Despite the difficulties of the last few weeks, David has remained positive and optimistic and is so happy to be able to continue serving in another location. We are grateful to all those who worked on this issue and helped bring about a positive resolution. We also want to express our thanks and gratitude to the many people who have reached out in support to our son and to us, and for their many heartfelt thoughts and prayers!”
The Gaags also added that while thrilled their son had been released, they wouldn’t forget about others imprisoned who don’t have any kind of support.
“We would like to pay it forward and encourage continued support, thoughts and prayers for them,” the family said.
Russian police arrested the elders at a Church meetinghouse earlier this month and took the missionaries to Novorossiysk, a city adjacent to the Black Sea, reported KSL. Initially, the elders wanted to give officials their visas and leave the country during a court hearing, but the courts stalled on any kind of an agreement.
“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,” said KSL.
The Russian news agency, Tass, stated that Russian officials cited the two elders for “violating Russia’s entry and exit rules.” Later a Russian Orthodox Church spokesperson reported that the missionaries were conducting religious activities while working as English 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,” said Yuri Kozhokin, a spokesman for the Church said.
In 2016, the Russian government banned public missionary work. The Church changed missionaries’ designation to “volunteers” and asked its missionaries to only proselytize inside churches.
The arrest of the missionaries is the latest in a string of charges against westerners in Russia. CBS reported that in February, Russian authorities ordered an extra three months to the detention of an accused spy and former U.S. Marine, Paul Whelan.
“Vladimir Zherebenkov said the court ordered Whelan held until May 28, when he’s to appear in court again. Russia’s Federal Security Service sought the extension,” reported CBS.
Whelan denies the spy charges. He has U.S., British, Canadian and Irish citizenship.
In another case, CBS stated that last month, Russian officials arrested an US investment manager, Michael Calvey, who has worked in Russia for many years. The Russians charged Calvey with fraud and the embezzlement of $37 million.
“A court in Moscow rejected his appeal near the end of February, and said he could be held in prison until April 13 pending the completion of the fraud investigation,” CBS said.