(This version of the March 7th story corrects to change spelling of family name of one of the deportees in paragraph 2)
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Thursday two U.S. citizens volunteering for the Mormon church had been deported for violations of immigration laws and that two others, described by a church official as “in good spirits,” were in custody.
Russia’s Interfax news agency named the two deportees as Kole Brodowski and David Udo Gaag and said they had been ordered to leave Russia by a court in the southern port of Novorossiysk on Thursday.
It described them as volunteers with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons.
“I can confirm reports of the detention of U.S. citizens for breach of migration laws,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “Four were detained, two were deported by the decision of the court.”
A church spokesman confirmed that two of its volunteers were still in custody.
“They remain in custody while their deportation is being processed,” spokesman Eric Hawkins said in an email. “The young men are in good spirits, are being treated well, and are in regular contact with their mission president and their families.”
There have been several high profile arrests of U.S. citizens in Russia in recent months.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying, saw his detention extended last month for a further three months as authorities continue to investigate the case.
A prominent U.S. investor, Michael Calvey, was detained last month on allegations of stealing 2.5 billion roubles ($37.79 million). He denies the allegation.
More than 100 criminal cases have also been opened in Russia against Jehovah’s Witnesses, another Christian denomination, with a Danish adherent of the faith recently jailed for six years.
KSL TV in the American state of Utah, where the Mormon church is based, quoted the father of one of the two detained men as saying they had been held on Friday on suspicion of teaching without a licence.
Interfax quoted a lawyer for one of the men as saying it had not been established by the court that they had been paid for their work or used any educational textbooks.
The lawyer, Sergey Gliznutsa, was quoted as saying that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was registered by the Russian Justice Ministry under a charter that envisaged various cultural and educational events, including debates with foreigners in a foreign language.
($1 = 66.1540 roubles)
(Reporting by Polina Ivanova; Editing by William Maclean and Tom Brown)