Russia to Kick Mormons Out?
Mormons have a history of being misunderstood.
Case in point would be this past week when the youth wing of the ruling United Russia party held a protest on Thursday 1 Nov. calling for a ban on Mormon missionaries in Russia, and charging that full-time missionaries are potential American spies. The Young Guard defended the move on its website, describing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based here in the United States, as a “totalitarian sect” whose missionaries seek to gather Russian intelligence and genealogical records.
“This is an American sect,” said Ekaterina Stenyakina, co-chair of Young Guard’s coordinating committee. The RIA Novosti news agency further reported Stenyakina as saying, “They are funded by the United States of America, and it’s been proven that many young Mormons return to the U.S. to work for the CIA and FBI.”
Mitt Romney, perhaps currently the most prominent member of the Church in the world, has made numerous comments about Russia in the past few months leading up to this weeks’ presidential election, including calling Russia our “number one geopolitical foe”. That comment, made in a recent debate with President Barack Obama, caused many liberal pundits to make joking references to Mr. Romney thinking we were still living during the Cold War era. Two days ago Matt Romney, a son of the Republican presidential nominee, traveled to Moscow seeking Russian investors for his California-based real estate firm, Excel Trust, just days before his father is to wrap up a campaign in which he has vowed to take a tougher stance with the Kremlin with “more backbone”. The Romney campaign has described the visit as “friendly”.
While we may not be in a nuclear arms race any longer, Romney’s off-the-cuff and frequent remarks may cause more friction in Russia’s relations with his church than with his country.
On 26 October Russian President Vladimir Putin made an official state visit to the small Province of Samara in west central Russia. While there he attended a meeting with Nikolai Merkushkin, acting President of the Samara Province, and representatives of the local community. During the meeting a local employee of the Samara Regional In-Service Teacher Training Institute, Elena Belchikova, asked Mr. Putin if the government could do more to help regulate and control “totalitarian sects”. Specifically, Mrs. Belchikova was complaining about various religious sects in the region. According to her, many of the foreign religions in the area promote their ideas and sectarian views using educational programs that mask their true intent to win over converts. She said that as a school administrator it is easy for her as an adult to see “what is behind” such programs, but that often the young people in her community do not know what they are getting into.
Mrs. Belchikova’s remarks could have easily been prompted by remarks made earlier in the week by Alexei Grishin, president of the information and analytical center “Religion and Society”. As the Russian version of a religious think-tank, Religion and Society’s purpose is to study the influence of different religious groups, especially foreign, and the effects they have upon Russian society. Earlier in the week Mr. Grishin had made the recommendation to create a central government database which could “more fully track” movements made my members of certain religious sects. Recently Russia has been plagued by a string of radical Muslims attacking more moderate followers of Islam, leading to numerous deaths. And while these are the kinds of groups which are obviously in need of being tracked for society’s safety, other sects were not dismissed. According to Grishin, who is also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, an effective fight against totalitarian sects would need a general method of initial detection. Such totalitarian sects include any group which requires extreme sacrifice or adherence to an “unorthodox set of beliefs”.
Belchikova’s direct request during the meeting in Samara provides a clear view of how many Russians still feel towards outsiders in their country. A nation with 142 Million residents, Russia is still a country saddling between an old Soviet world view and a capitalistic future which may be more godless than communism. Asking President Putin for the federal government to improve resistance to totalitarian sects, the educator further expressed the need to create a data bank of totalitarian sects with brief information about them, which would be accessible to regional education ministries and schools.
In response to the request, Vladimir Putin noted that Russia has four traditional religions, but stressed that representatives of other movements and faiths should feel free. “As for the totalitarian trends that are a threat to society, their hunting is not only for souls, but they are also hunting for property,” said the President. He noted that often during his visits to the region he hears about problems with the activities of totalitarian sects. He then said, “As the mushrooms grow, and the cabin, where all sorts of secret rituals are held, and where it is not clear what is happening, and where our people are being driven into the ground, this is a problem.” While no specific commentary was given as to what particular group or rituals the president was referring to, he then said directly to Mrs. Belchikova’s requests, “I agree with you.” However, the head of state then noted that it is a very sensitive issue because Russia must respect freedom of religion. “We have no restrictions,” he said in reference to religious practices among citizens.
Although Mr. Putin’s remarks in regards to totalitarian sects seemed to end on a positive note for all, his reference to religious freedoms obviously did not strike tune with the Young Guard of United Russia, the highly organized youth wing of the United Russia Party. As a group which claims to have over 160,000 members in their late teens and early twenties, the Young Guard of United Russia is the political action group of youth in Russia. – Picture University Republicans on steroids, only more organized and more popular. – The Young Guard are known for their ability in assisting young Russians in registering to vote and becoming involved in the political process for the first time. The Young Guards’ use of the internet, social media, and the media at large has also been impressive in the past few Russian elections, and their theatrical rallies and organized protests are known to create passion in young Russians.
It was this past Wednesday, 31 October, as the youth of Russia logged onto the Young Guard of United Russia’s webpage they saw a headline which read:
Young Guards Open Campaign Against the Presence of the Mormon Sect in Russia
The call to to campaign by Russian youth was then set forth on the web site by planning the above mentioned protests for the next day throughout Russia, and then giving a brief outline of the history of the Church. It was in this posting that the Young Guard claimed that Mormon missionaries have direct contact with the U.S. military while also ominously pointing out that a certain proportion of young Mormons returning to the United States after missionary work enter the service of the CIA and FBI.
To make certain they conveyed how evil Mormons’ foreign influence is, the Young Guards also warned that polygamy and pedophilia were a “widespread practice” in the Church, and linked their webpage to a story about Warren Jeffs, leader of a fundamentalist sect of polygamists who are no way associated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The group also mentioned that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and accused him of holding anti-Russian beliefs which are common among church members.
As groups of protesters gathered outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Russian headquarters in Moscow and hoisted signs reading “No, to foreign agents!” and “Foo, CIA!”, there were similar protests occurring across Russia at each of the Church’s mission offices in the country the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
In Moscow some Young Guard members held up a makeshift one-way plane ticket reading “back to Washington” for Mormon missionaries.
The protests in St. Petersburg, Samara, Novosibirsk, and Vladivostok were also well covered by local and national media outlets such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The protests have came in the wake of President Putin’s recent remarks in Samara, and other remarks from Mr. Putin condemning alleged foreign influence in domestic affairs and calling for an end to the presence of non-governmental organizations with foreign links that promote democracy and civil society within Russia.
On Wednesday, the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, passed a bill that broadens the definition of treason to potentially include foreigners that provide “consulting services” for foreign governments or organizations. Under this new law, missionaries could be prosecuted for treason merely by their presence within the country fulfilling their proselyting duties.
Last month, the Kremlin ordered the United States Agency for International Development to end all operations in Russia. The organization had funded many Russian civil society organizations for two decades.
The statement on the website of the Youth Guard also noted that Putin has called for the need “to confront totalitarian sects operating in the territory of Russia.”
“In this regard, the Young Guard as a social organization intends to attract the attention of questionable activities of totalitarian sects operating in Russia, in particular, the sect of the Mormons,” the statement said.
Stenyakina, the same young woman who made allegations about a link between Mormons and the CIA, warned Russia’s youth that they could be easily wooed by the free English lessons and community service that the Mormon missionaries provide in their communities.
According to the RIA Novosti news agency, Elena Nechiporova, director for the Church’s East Europe Area’s public affairs department, stated emphatically that the allegations that Mormon missionaries are foreign agents is baseless. “It is somebody’s opinion without any facts, without any legal investigation, without court decisions,” she said, adding that “preaching the gospel is our main goal.”
Russia is home to approximately 16,000 Latter-day Saints in roughly 100 scattered congregations throughout the country. The Moscow Russia Stake of the Church was dedicated last year on 5 June 2011.
Surely, no matter the outcome of recent political frictions or newly passed laws, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Church members will strive to honor and obey the laws of the land in Russia and to serve their fellow man and their communities. A basic tenet of Mormon faith is that,
“We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.”
– Doctrine and Covenants 134:5
Misunderstandings about the Church and Church members is expected, but as Christians we always welcome an open dialogue of common courtesy and respect. Although the full causes for last weeks protests may never be known, they ended peaceably and with little disturbance.
As missionaries and Church members continue to labor to build up Zion in their part of the world I have little doubt that their shining examples as good Christians will erase any harm done by recent simple misunderstandings, and the work of the Lord will continue in Russia.
If you’ve stumbled upon this site and you’re not a Mormon please click here to learn more about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and what we believe.
You can read more about the history of the Church in Russia online here.