Translation of the Church’s Statement on the Search at the Vladivostok Branch

This is an unofficial translation of the Church’s official statement on the search conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affair’s Anti-Extremism Division (essentially the Vladivostok Police Department).

I am limiting my commentary on this post to preserve the Church’s tone inasmuch as possible. For a brief introduction to the issue, see my previous posts on the Yarovaya Laws and on this incident in particular. More analysis will follow in future posts and as more information becomes available. Please feel free to contact me with information you might have concerning the status of the Church in Russia or your experiences as a member or missionary there.


Official Statement of the Church On the Situation in Vladivostok

On the 9th of September, 2016, on the official website of the Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in the Primorsky Krai [1] a message was posted that stated, “in the course of investigative activities on Mordovtseva Street in Vladivostok, in the office of a religious organization of a Christian confession which is not traditional in Russia, officers from the Anti-Extremism Center of the Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs discovered discs supposedly containing video files of a pornographic character with the participation of minors.”

In connection with this message we find it necessary to clarify that on the 29th of August, 2016, police officers arrived at the address of the Local Religious Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the City of Vladivostok (hereinafter “the Religious Organization”) [2] and, taking advantage of the legal illiteracy of the members of the Church who were present, without appropriate authority, entered into one of the rooms, the library, after which they announced that they had supposedly discovered a compact disc containing pornographic material.

Inasmuch as the origin of the aforementioned materials is unknown to us, and inasmuch as their contents are in complete opposition to the fundamental doctrines of the Church, as well as to the moral and ethical principles of the Church’s members, there is basis to suppose that the aforementioned actions of the police officers were a deliberate provocation and had the goal of discrediting the activities of the Religious Organization.

Furthermore, we find it essential to reiterate that respect for the laws of every country is an important principle of the Church, as expressed in its Articles of Faith, and that Church members are well-known for their exceptional commitment to obeying the law.

For general information, the Religious Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Russia is the central religious organization registered with the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, operating since 1991. The Religious Association is part of the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has 15 million members in 165 countries. The structure of the Religious Association contains more than one hundred religious communities, including religious organizations and religious groups in more than 50 subjects [3] of the Russian Federation. The local Religious Organization in the City of Vladivostok is part of the structure of the Religious Association.

At the current time, several procedural decisions concerning the matter have not yet been made. The Church is taking every essential measure to establish the circumstances of the occurrence.

[1] Essentially, the Vladivostok Police Department.

[2] This is the official legal name of the Church as registered in Vladivostok. Russian law requires that religious organizations be registered not in a country-wide manner but in each city and region in which they operate, necessitating long legal designations such as this one.

[3] The Russian Federation has a very complex federal structure with a variety of legal entities with varying degrees of independence from the federal government. You could think of “subjects of the Russian Federation” as varying types of “states.” The point here is that the Church is legally organized in a large portion of the Russian Federation.


“Extremism” Update: Police Search in Vladivostok Branch

I think I have some fessing up to do. I didn’t think either the Church or the Russian government would move so fast. I have been guilty of telling people to calm down, as well as telling people to wake up.

Frankly, I am humbled by having misread some of the evidence here.

First, the Church has not been staying quiet and is actually moving faster than I would have guessed. As you are probably aware, the Church announced last week that it’s not going to be sending 30 missionaries currently assigned to Russia, instead sending them to Russian-speaking areas in other countries. This is not the first time the Church has made such a choice — actually, in 2008 and 2009, the number of missionaries sent to Russia was sharply reduced in response to increased requirements for missionaries to get visas. (In fact, when I was applying to get a teaching job at the MTC in those years, they were reducing Russian-speaking staff.) The numbers of missionaries eventually went back up before the lowering of missionary ages, but didn’t move much during the missionary surplus.

This, however, is different. While missionaries have technically been registered as “volunteers” for several years (about a decade!), earlier this year, the Church’s request that family members to refer to them as such was new recognition of the need to bow to cultural realities. And furthermore, the moves toward totalitarian policing going on are not business as usual.

Which brings me to the second point: the political climate is deteriorating very quickly, and the situation is probably even worse that it looks. Last week, I wrote about Pokémon and playgrounds. This week, I read about a truly astounding addition: pornography, this time allegedly found in a Mormon branch library in Vladivostok. No, really. During a search inspired by an anonymous tip, local police supposedly found three discs containing child pornography in the branch library. This “search” had two effects: first, it lays the foundation for serious criminal prosecution of the Church or Church members. But perhaps more importantly, even if the charges are dropped, the case has been covered widely and negatively in the media. In other words, at best, the objective of the search was simply to do a hatchet job on the Church’s reputation, even if justice is eventually done. (Don’t expect that, but if it does, all credit to the Church’s Moscow lawyers.)

The Church fought in court the deportation of the missionaries from Samara, which (it turns out) was based on a novel reading of Russian immigration law that caught the Church by total surprise — because it was unwarranted, based on years of practice.[1] The Church is fighting the Vladivostok issue in court. It probably will not succeed, but it is important to use what mechanisms remain to protect the well-being of the Church and especially its members. The question of establishing a “test case” to protect the Church in Russia has been floated. If I had to guess, I would say that a test case will come to us without any need to seek it out.

That is not to mention (as I will later) the very aggressive moves being taken against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, against Adventists and Baptists, and Russian Orthodox splinter groups.

I knew this kind of thing was coming, but I am (again) taken aback at how quickly it has arrived. Worse than this was always going to come, and still will.  It will probably come sooner rather than later.

So, as usual, remember to pray for Russia.

[1] Civil law, as practiced in Europe, is quite different than US-style common law. “Precedent” does not bind in civil law systems like it does here; the text (and meaning) of statute is the only controlling authority. The effect here is to create a shocking divergence from established practice, but that’s not a good argument in civil law courts.


Russian Extremism Report: Playgrounds and Pokémon

In the “Seriously?!?” bin, file this story: the Yarovaya Laws are being used to put pressure on minority religious groups under dubious pretenses. A Baptist ministry in Noyabrsk (northern Siberia) had its playground closed and was fined 5000 rubles for holding a “children’s camp” there and practicing missionary work in the camp. The church says it was just having an interfaith dialog meeting and that the kids of the participants were playing on the playground. To make the charges here — missionary work is allowed in houses of worship, and the kids weren’t having any lessons given to them — the authorities cited religious literature that the Baptists were sharing with the interfaith group, which was fine, but was… er… not properly being distributed. Right. That’s it.

The article I cited as a source suggests that there might be some one-up-manship going on between the city administration and the prosecutor, which is why the original fine was turned into illegal proselyting charge.

I am, of course, shocked, shocked, that the Yarovaya laws are being used as pretext to harass religious minorities for political gain.

In the same file, the story (EN RU) of a young, aggressive, internet-famous atheist name Ruslan Sokolovsky charged in Ekaterinburg under the “feelings of religious believers” law.[1] His offense: playing Pokémon Go in a church and posting the video on YouTube with some derogatory commentary — for example, that he didn’t catch the rarest Pokémon of all, Jesus. “The rumor is that he doesn’t exist.”

So, for that he could face five years in jail. (As I understand it, he is technically being charged for the YouTube video, not playing Pokémon in the church.)

Right-liberal Russian nationalist (and Orthodox) Alexei Navalny came (somewhat surprisingly) to Sokolovsky’s defense with basically the whole argument: Pokémon aren’t real, so there’s no need to protect God from them. (Or Sokolovsky’s atheism, for that matter.) It should be clear at this point that prosecutions of this type are both (a) legal and (b) completely ridiculous.

Keeping the theme of my blog in mind, what does persecution of Baptists and the prosecution of atheists have to do with Mormons in Russia? I mentioned in an earlier post that in the early stages of the process of the reconstruction of the Russian security services, the targets were minorities like LGBTQ Russians and “weirdos” like Pussy Riot — so what do Mormons have to fear? Then, of course, came the Yarovaya Laws on missionary work. Suddenly, Mormons cared about what the Russian government was up to, but by then, it was a little late.

I think the general lesson is clear: an attack on the rights of anyone is an attack on the rights of everyone. [2]

This is a practical argument about the nature of a healthy civil society that I would make to anyone. But this being a religious-themed blog, let me go one step further and say that it follows from the Gospel of Jesus Christ [3] that we should actively seek to support and defend the rights of all people, regardless of whether there is a reciprocal relationship between us, whether or not they’re like us, and whether or not they even like us. In times like these, such a responsibility is really tough. I won’t pretend I know exactly how it should be brought into practice for the Church as a whole, let alone for individuals, but it seems clear that we no longer have the luxury (if we ever did) of standing idly by while God’s children are treated badly.

[1] The law was created after they couldn’t prosecute Pussy Riot the way they wanted to — it’s a long story, I’ll bend your ear about it some time soon.

[2] Happily, the Church’s support for Syrian refugees seems to have taken this lesson to heart in wonderful ways.

[3] This is a contestable statement, sure, and its application is uncertain (and probably idiosyncratic), but it seems clear to me that is a very reasonable way to understand the imperatives of the Gospel. (I’m resisting a somewhat juvenile urge to prooftext my point.)

New Deportations of Mormon Missionaries from Russia

Well, I suppose it was going to happen sooner or later, but six missionaries are being deported out of Russia for violating migration laws. (Not, incidentally, for preaching where they weren’t supposed to or anything like that.) Interfax is reporting,[1] and here’s a little commentary from the Slavic Center for Law and Justice. Such a deportation could have happened at any point, and sometimes has, over the last 25 years of missionary work in Russia, but in the context of the Yarovaya laws, this one stands out.

It’s hard for me to say at this stage, with the limited information available, just how exactly the missionaries were in violation of the migration laws. The charge is that they were not on the federal immigration register, but it isn’t clear to me how that happened. There could have been an error at the border, or more likely, a failure to timely and correctly register when the missionaries got to Samara.

Either way, forgive me for being skeptical if immigration is the real issue, rather than a dislike of foreigners living in Samara. In the current environment, it’s important to keep an eye on how the laws are enforced as much as the legal justifications. To that end, here’s an interesting point in the brief Interfax article:

По словам источника агентства, в последние годы в разы выросло число граждан США, прибывающих в Самарскую область в рамках миссионерской деятельности: за январь-август 2016 года в регион приехало 204 американских миссионера, в то время как за весь 2013 год их было всего 46.

According to one [Interfax] source, in recent years the number of US citizens arriving in the Samara province as missionaries has grown several times: from January to August of 2016, 204 American missionaries arrived, but in the whole of 2013 there were only 46.

I expect more information as reporting develops.

P.S. — Any additional reporting (or, frankly, first-hand knowledge) would be appreciated. Include in the comments or email me through the contact page. Thanks!

[1] Thanks, by the way, Interfax for consistently describing the missionaries as “adepts,” a word which carries as much cultist connotations in Russian as it does in English.


Missionary Work after the Yarovaya Laws, Part III: Conclusions

This is the third post in a series reviewing the effects of the Yarovaya Laws on the Church and specifically missionary work in Russia. Part I was a general introduction and Part II was a statutory analysis. The conclusions that I draw from that analysis follow.

The Effects of the Law in Plain English

Continue reading “Missionary Work after the Yarovaya Laws, Part III: Conclusions”

Missionary Work after the Yarovaya Laws, Part II: Legal Analysis

This is the second installment of three posts on the effect of recent Russian legislation on the Church and specifically missionary work in Russia. The first post provided a general introduction. This post will present my best attempt at a close reading of the statute. The last post will provide some of my thoughts on what it all means.

Because we are dealing with an extremely complex piece of legislation modifying a variety of statutes (not to mention the obvious fact that it’s in Russian) I’ll paraphrase its basic effects while including links for the curious.

For the less curious, TL;DR: The missionaries are staying, but they’ll likely soon have nothing to do because the members probably can’t help them anymore: for ordinary Russians, talking to your friends in public or in your own home about your religion is now illegal. Continue reading “Missionary Work after the Yarovaya Laws, Part II: Legal Analysis”

Missionary Work in Russia after the Yarovaya Laws – Introduction

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law the so-called “Yarovaya Laws” (named after the sponsoring legislator) to supposedly combat terrorism in Russia. As a variety of legal commentators have noted, however, the law imposes significant restrictions on social media and civil liberties generally. As has been appropriately noted by most of the media I’ve seen covering this issue, it matters a great deal how the law is applied in practice. Unfortunately, if the last four years are any guide, the law will be applied selectively and arbitrarily in order to create maximum paranoia and suppress activity by groups that the authorities (broadly defined) find “undesirable.”

There is so much to unpack in these statutes that I will save most of it for another day, but I did want to give a somewhat cooled “hot take” on the issue most active on the bloggernacle, namely the status of Russian missionaries after the law’s passage.

This has developed into a three-post analysis. The next post will cover the text of the law in detail. If statutory interpretation isn’t your thing, skip the heavy legal analysis for the third post, my interpretation of what the laws are likely to mean in practice.

Before I get into all that, as an introductory aside, I want to note that most people who are interested in this topic are initially concerned for American missionaries. This is not terribly surprising, and people should be concerned about their brothers and daughters and nieces and cousins, and about the missionary efforts of the Church. But I hope that after we have work through our concerns for the missionaries that we will spend at least as much concern thinking about how this will affect Russian Mormons, our brothers and sisters in Christ, whose burdens we have covenanted to co-bear and whom we have covenanted to show comfort. There will likely be work to be done in the future on both accounts.