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2 Latter-day Saint volunteers detained in Russia have left the country

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Two Latter-day Saint volunteers detained in Russia will be coming home after nearly three weeks in jail, according to an emailed statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Kole Brodowski, 20, was nearing the end of his service when he was detained and will return home to California. Elder David Gaag, 19, will return to the United States for a short time, “receive any needed support” and then continue his service in a new mission, the church said.

“While in detention, the volunteers were treated very well and maintained regular contact with their families and mission president. The church is closely monitoring conditions in Russia for all volunteers and will continue to fully comply with Russian law,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said.

Local Russian police first arrested the two volunteers during a meeting at a church meetinghouse on March 1 and detained them in Novorossiysk, a city on the Black Sea, the church said.

The two volunteers initially offered to surrender their visas and leave the country during an earlier court hearing, but the deal never materialized, according to The father of one of the volunteers told reporters that officials believed the elders were teaching English without a license. The pair said they were only conducting a regularly-scheduled game night in English.

After about a week of detention, the volunteers learned they would be deported, but it was another two weeks before the church announced they had left the country.

Russia’s state-run news agency, Tass, reported that officials had found two U.S. citizens guilty of violating Russia’s entry and exit rules. A Russian Orthodox church official told the news agency that the Latter-day Saints were carrying out religious activities in Russia working as English teachers. Yuri Kozhokin, a representative of the church in Russia, disagreed.

“They just talked with Russian citizens who came to see them on their own accord. They just talked about various topics unrelated to religion, got to know one another, but they talked to each other in English. … I know this from the practices stipulated in the organization’s bylaws,” Kozhokin told reporters after a judge upheld the decision to expel one of the two U.S. citizens from Russia.

In July 2016, Russia implemented an anti-terrorism law that banned public missionary work. The church instead redesignated their missionaries in the country to volunteers and instructed the young men and women there to follow the law and only proselytize in houses of worship.

A former Latter-day Saint volunteer who also served in the same area as the two elders said detentions were fairly routine, but that he never felt unsafe.

The U.S. State Department was also aware that that the volunteers were being detained, and both Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, reached out to the department and the church to inform and offer assistance.