Political and church leaders who have been working to secure liberties for Western religions in Russia say recognition given the LDS Church and other churches Thursday is what they have been promised for some time.
Russia signed certificates of registration Thursday for the LDS Church, Roman Catholics, Baptists and several other religions that have been concerned about their status in Russia since Russian lawmakers passed new laws last year governing religious liberties in the country.The Deseret News does not have a complete list of churches recognized.
Thursday's recognition of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a "centralized religious organization" in Russia gives the church the greatest liberty and protection available under Russian law.
Russian legislation passed in June threatened to restrict churches and their proselyting efforts if they had been in Russia less than 15 years. The LDS Church was first recognized in Russia just seven years ago next week. Many other Western religions are also new to post-Soviet Russia.
"All along (Russian officials) have said `Don't worry. Be reassured. This isn't going to affect you.' So we've gone on that," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve. "We've gone forward with confidence. But there was always this little cloud of confusion, and so what yesterday brought more than anything was clarification."
The LDS Church took a lead role in an interfaith coalition of churches in Russia that has helped keep the issue before policy-makers there, Elder Holland said. U.S. senators have also made important official visits to Russia to press the government to secure religious freedoms.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., both LDS Church members, were in Russia in early April. Responsible people in Russian politics wanted to ensure religious freedoms were actually accomplished, Hatch said. Thursday's certification was the fulfillment of expectations held for some time.
"But you can't take too much for granted because there are a lot of forces there that could reverse all this," Hatch told the Deseret News Friday.
The March 18 kidnapping of two LDS missionaries in southern Russia and their release four days later may have appeared to be a setback for the church but more likely helped bring the right kinds of recognition about the church and its activities at a pivotal time, Hatch said.
"In the end I think that brought it to their attention that we are good people," he said.
The U.S. ambassador and the Clinton administration also played a positive role, Hatch said. Ultimately, "God deserves the credit. He moves in mysterious ways. I think our Father in Heaven wanted all faiths there to be treated fairly."
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, traveled to Russia almost one year ago and was promised then that turmoil over religions new to Russia would be resolved - especially for churches like the LDS Church that had an official presence in Russia before new laws were passed last year.
"I told them the law doesn't make that clear. They said, `We understand that and we're assuring you that's what it means.' And I said, `You need to make that crystal clear.' "
Russian officials from the Ministry of Justice visited Bennett in his Washington, D.C., office months later with the same reassurance.
"I'm now delighted they've kept their word and we have legal stand-ing rather than just oral assurances. I'm equally delighted that the Catholics and Baptists and others also have it, because I spoke on behalf of all Western religions when I was there."
Thursday's recognition "is very good news," said Brigham Young University professor Gary Browning, who was the church's first mission president in St. Petersburg. "I would say that this is a very important step in the development of the church in the Russian Republic."
Religions in Russia function within a tier structure. "There are religious `groups,' which really have little protection under the law; and then there are religious `organizations' that have been in the country for fewer than 15 years and are not centralized religions," and have a number of restrictions placed on them, Browning said.
The "centralized" recognition the LDS Church received Thursday gives the church full protection under Russian law. The only recognition greater than that offers no additional legal protection but would allow the church to call itself a Russian church. A 15-year presence in the country is required before that can take place, Browning said.
LDS missionaries based in Finland began proselyting in Russia in 1990 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The first missions were established on Russian soil in 1991, the same year the church received its first official recognition in the country.
The "National Religious Association" prefix to the church's official name could not be changed to the "Russian Religious Association of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" until 2006 under the 15-year rule, Browning said.