RUSSIA: Mormons Say Missionary Expulsions 'Unfounded'.

Tatyana Titova, Keston News Service, 14 February 2002

The chief lawyer at the East European representative office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) has rejected the authorities' reasons for expelling three of its missionaries from Russia. The three Americans left Russia on 4 February. The Internal Affairs Administration of Pskov region justified their decision to expel the three by the fact that they were detained at a military unit of the Pskov airborne division. However, Michael Jensen told Keston News Service on 6 February that the Russian authorities' decision was "groundless", claiming that the missionaries had been invited onto the base by a soldier working there in order to give English lessons.

According to Jensen, this was the first time that Mormons had been expelled from Russia (although two Mormon missionaries to Tatarstan had their visas curtailed and had to leave Russia in January - see KNS 17 January 2002). The local Internal Affairs Administration claimed that the presence of the Mormons in the military division was linked to the arrival there of the airborne forces commander Colonel-General Gennadi Shpak for an inspection.

The three missionaries, Autumn Newson, Matthew Crain and Weston Pope, the oldest of whom is 22 years old, were engaged in missionary work in Pskov, Jensen told Keston, together with a Russian citizen Yelena Danilovna Shaber. According to their legally certified evidence, a lieutenant of the Pskov airborne division, Aleksei Kulakov, had approached them several times asking them to teach English to the soldiers in his unit. At first the missionaries refused, fearing the potential consequences, but the lieutenant insisted, appealing to their "Christian calling" to help their neighbours. On 22 January the missionaries agreed to meet him to discuss the terms on which the lessons would take place and that evening they set off to the address that Kulakov had given.

According to Jensen, when they saw that the military unit was based at that address, the missionaries at first decided not to go in, and held discussions with the lieutenant not far from the gates. But then he took them through the checkpoint, assuring them that they were not breaking any rules by doing this, and they continued their discussions in a room that had been specially set aside for receiving guests. However, as the missionaries were returning to the exit, a patrol stopped them and ordered them to show their documents. They were questioned for three hours at the base, in an attempt to find out their "secret intentions" while there. When the missionaries referred to Lieutenant Kulakov their questioners replied that they would "look into his actions themselves". When the Mormons emerged from the military unit after the lengthy questioning, there were people waiting for them with a video camera. That recording has been shown twice on central television.

"The decision to expel the missionaries from the Russian Federation is without foundation," Jensen insisted. "They believed they had the right to be on that military base." Aside from the fact that the Internal Affairs Administration did not give the Mormons written notification of their expulsion, Jensen claims that, while questioning the missionaries, officers made ironic comments about their faith. Asked by Keston whether he viewed the incident as a set-up or a misunderstanding, Jensen replied that he did not know.

An official of the department of information and social relations at the Internal Affairs Administration of Pskov region told Keston on 6 February that the Americans had been expelled for breaking the rules for staying in the Russian Federation. "They were discovered on the territory of a military unit, where they were intending to teach English to soldiers, and when they were asked what they were really doing there, they replied that they did not understand what was wanted of them," said the official, who did not give his name. He confirmed that at the time General Shpak was located at the division, but he could not answer Keston's question about how the Americans could have been allowed onto a military base, particularly at a time when a commander was carrying out an inspection there. (END)