July 17, 2008
By Sergei Balashov
Mormons fall victim to new Russian laws
One of the world’s fastest growing churches has never managed to establish a solid presence in Russia, acquiring just 19,000 members over the past 17 years of its official operations in this country. Now the Mormon Church has decided to stop sending North American missionaries to Russia altogether citing the new visa restrictions which have made it very hard for missionaries to stay in the country and do their work. Despite the Church’s official position denouncing any discrimination by the Russian government, concerns about the strong religious intolerance have been voiced by the public, putting into question Russia’s willingness to accept a different sermon.
According to Russia’s new laws, humanitarian workers will be able to stay for no longer than 90 days without going out of the country and renewing their visa, and be in Russia for no more than 180 days a year. Mormon missionaries have to spend two years on a mission, usually going to a foreign country to take their best effort to spread the religion and get as many people as possible to convert and join the Church. The changes to the legislation effectively make it impossible for Mormons to serve their missions.
According to Russia’s new laws, humanitarian workers will be able to stay for no longer than 90 days without going out of the country and renewing their visa, and be in Russia for no more than 180 days a year. Mormon missionaries have to spend two years on a mission, usually going to a foreign country to take their best effort to spread the religion and get as many people as possible to convert and join the Church. The changes to the legislation effectively make it impossible for Mormons to serve their missions.“This has been a tradition in the Church for over 150 years,” said head of the public relations department of the church in Eastern Europe Elena Nechiporova. “The missionaries use their own money to travel overseas to serve, and trips back and forth to renew their visas could be very costly. They save up for their missions their whole lives, and their families usually have five or six children, which stretches their budgets thin.”
“We’re going to abide by the laws as we always do, this new legislation is not directed against us,” added Nechiporova.
Proceed with caution
Even before the legislation came into effect, Mormons, along with other religious missionaries representing religions that have been perceived as non-traditional and treated with caution in Russia, had enough on their hands to deal with. “We’ve had to face certain problems in Russia,” said LDS outside legal counsel Lev Simkin. “Our missionaries have been accused of implementing some mind-control practices, which is not what we do. What harm could these boys do other than cleaning parks and doing other humanitarian work?”
The harassment goes further than just these accusations. “Down in Novocherkassk, our missionaries which are predominantly American were helping the locals practice English just by holding different discussions with them,” continued Simkin. “It wasn’t even about faith. Those who wanted to learn more had the choice to stay and talk about the real purpose why these men came over to Russia.” These missionaries ended up getting accused of teaching without a license and faced visa revocation. “It was ridiculous as they weren’t really teaching anybody anything,” said Simkin. “Then there was another case in Shakhty where local immigration put forward accusations that our missionaries weren’t staying where they were registered and made them leave the country. We had to go to court to overturn this decision and get them back.”
“All of these were prejudicial and mostly initiated by the local authorities and we encounter this kind of treatment mostly in Southern cities such as Novocherkassk, Krasnodar and Rostov,” Simkin said. “The courts, however, were very objective.”
Not just some of the local authorities, but also the public hasn’t always been very friendly and willing to accept the foreign preachers. “We’ve encountered various forms of harassment over the years,” Nechiporova said. “People were throwing anti-Mormon leaflets at our meeting house in Tomsk; there were other cases when they threw stones at our windows. We could do little but just clean up the mess and keep on doing our thing.”
Compared to the start of the church’s operations in Russia, the nature of the protests has been changing. “Back in the day, we had the so-called anticultists protesting against the church; however, most of the public rage was directed at Protestant minorities such as Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists,” Simkin explained. “Today any such protests are politically motivated. In Lipetsk, youths from the Young Guard all of a sudden decided to fight against cults and sent people to hold demonstrations and acts of protest against the Mormon Church. I guess they were doing it just because they had nothing else to protest against at the moment.”
“Generally, the public has been more or less tolerable to the church; it’s growing friendlier and is not usually prejudiced against non-traditional religions,” Simkin added.
Preaching a different sermon
The first reports of the news in Utahan newspapers sparked discussions of whether Russia deliberately imposed the restrictions to prevent Mormons from coming and if the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the country’s dominating religious organization known for its mostly critical approach toward religious minorities, could be behind this.
“The state doesn’t impose any official religion,” Nechiporova said. “The Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t intrude into our operations or place any hurdles on our way.”
Despite its lack of open criticism, the Russian Orthodox Church isn’t very welcoming of the Latter-Day Saints, as shunning seems to be the policy it employs in its relations with this religion. The LDS tried sending letters to the Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill with proposals of specific charity projects that the two churches could jointly carry out. However, no response was received. “We were told we’d never get a response,” Nechiporova said.
Religious tolerance has been an issue in Russia, where people are perceived to be conservative and, in a way, religiously and culturally isolationist. So, any new religions are treated with apprehension and skepticism. Recent studies show, however, that the situation isn’t radically different from that in other countries, and is sometimes even better.
According to the latest European Social Survey, only 0.6 percent of Russians consider themselves discriminated against religiously, while over 60 percent say that they tolerate other religions.
“We can’t label those religious organizations that are officially registered in Russia and operate in accordance with the laws as cults,” said academic secretary of the Center for Study of Religion in Contemporary Society of the Institute for Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences Maria Mchedlova. “As for various Protestant denominations such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists and Pentecostals, they’ve been here for over 100 years, and I would say that it’s hard to imagine Russian culture without them. Moreover, Protestant Christians are about the most religiously active and church-going group. I don’t see why anyone would be prejudiced against them.”
The religious intolerance that exists is not reasoned by any considerable danger that could be posed by any foreign religions to the society, but rather shares the underlying cause with racism. “The cautiousness the public expresses toward various religious minorities has to do with ignorance, as it usually does not know what these religions are really about,” said Mchedlova.
That might have to do with the general attitude toward religion that many Russians tend to have. “If you look at the numbers, the share of those who do believe in God is lower than of those who consider themselves a member of a certain religious confession,” said Mchedlova. “This means that religion is viewed as a criterion of social and cultural self identification of people rather than some kind of a dogma. For some, religion is more like a part of their culture than their faith. We could say it is a unique situation.”
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