We talk a lot about religious freedom nowadays. If you were to play some kind of Mormon drinking game equivalent—like dirty soda shots—during General Conference, you could get quite the fizzy rush out of the number of times religious freedom is mentioned from the pulpit. And while religious freedom is an issue of global importance, its nature is decidedly different in the United States, where folks are freaking out about bathrooms, compared to Russia, where effective today, Mormon
missionaries volunteers are barred from virtually any sort of traditional missionary activity because of Russia’s new anti-terror law.
As we’ve plumbed the depths of this issue on our weekly podcast, we’ve sought some info from the ground. And now we have it. In a letter sent to missionaries from the president of one of Russia’s
missions volunteer associations, we learned about some of the very specific ins and outs of Russia’s new law, and the true cost of being subject to kings. Bear in mind this is one letter from one mission, so your mileage may very, but we can’t imagine the situation being much different in other Russian missions, especially when Salt Lake is knee-deep in this stuff.
While the law took effect today, July 20, Church volunteers were encouraged to have amended behavior and scheduled activities to be in compliance no later than the 19th.
First off, the word “missionary” is now officially associated with “activities that are no longer legal” in Russia. Ergo, everyone has to be called a “volunteer.” This isn’t just a cute colloquialism, either. From the top down, the word “missionary” is gone from the lexicon. Done.
But it’s not just associated with vocabulary. Who were once missionaries are now effectively no longer actual missionaries. It’s a paradigm shift in the way the Church exists in Russia.
As for other required changes in behavior:
- Volunteers are not to engage in any form of public contacting, be it on the street or on transportation, or traditional door knocking. Nothing in public.
- Volunteers are not to distribute religious literature of any kind.
- Volunteers are not to offer any form of invitation or engage in any (formerly) missionary activity.
- Volunteers may engage in everyday conversations with Russians, but must make no effort to bring up religion.
- Volunteers may offer simple responses to inquiries about what they are doing in Russia, but are not to discuss doctrine or teachings publicly, even if asked.
- If someone asks to learn more about the gospel, volunteers are to reiterate that they are not missionaries, but are here to help local church members. They may still give out a church building’s address. (The letter has a note that official, scripted wording to situations where an individual presses a volunteer is still in development in Salt Lake.)
- Volunteers are encouraged to use very particular phrasing when engaged in discussion with police or state officials, and stress that they do not engage in missionary activities. The Church is also referred to as the “Centralized Religious Organization ‘The Religious Association of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.'”
- Religious discussions with members are allowed, even in the home, but no discussions may take place with nonmembers.
- Any requests to do service must go through mission office approval. Volunteers are not to approach other organizations about doing service.
Volunteers in Russia are also undergoing a two-week moratorium on much of anything, particularly engaging in limited conversations with strangers. This is in an effort to keep a low profile and start the work of changing the public’s perceptions of Mormon volunteers as proselytizing missionaries.
The letter describes the new restrictions as similar to any other mission rules that require adjustment. At the risk of editorializing, that seems almost unreasonably sunny. But the volunteers in Russia will still find ways to be effective.
As Matt Martinich pointed out, the term “volunteers” is used in other countries, like Turkey and Belarus. Obviously, Belarus is hardly a bastion of human rights and civil society, and Turkey is, well, who knows what Turkey is at this point.
How much longer will Mormon missionaries/volunteers be in Russia? That is what is most curious here. Sure, the current crop will serve its time, but will these volunteer cadres be replenished and chug along with new rules, or are we eventually going to see numbers drop and missions consolidated? In my completely uninformed view, it’s hard to see things continuing at the same personnel level in six or nine months.
This is a difficult situation, to be sure, but all is not lost. We don’t understand the rationale behind everything. We know that God allows man to be man, and that His work will still go forward even if new, creative means must be employed to carry it out. So I will choose to be optimistic about things and remember that Russia might attempt to shut our missionaries into their churches, but it can do very little to quell the spirit carried by these men and women.