PROVO — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has stopped sending North American missionaries to Russia due to new, tougher visa laws.

North American missionaries who were being prepared at the Missionary Training Center in Provo for service in Russia have been reassigned. So have church members who had received calls to Russia but who had not yet arrived at the MTC for training.

North American missionaries already in Russia will remain to complete their service, which runs two years for men and 18 months for women.

Last year, Russia began to require foreigners on humanitarian visas, which includes missionaries, to leave the country every three months to renew their visas.

"The church is working to find an alternative solution to the 90-day renewal requirement," church spokesman Rob Howell said Monday. "Until an appropriate alternative is identified, new missionary assignments to Russia will be limited to those nationalities not needing visas.

"Missionaries currently serving in Russia are not being withdrawn, and the missions are fully staffed."

LDS parents have been sending their children to Russia to seek converts since 1990, when two missionaries from the church's Finland Helsinki Mission arrived in Leningrad. Later that year, the church established the first branch, or congregation, in Russia, and the government first officially recognized the church.

The church now has about 20,000 members, 121 branches and eight missions spread across the country — two in Moscow and one each in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Rostov, Vladivostok, Samara and Novosibirsk.

Elder Corbin Dean of San Diego joined the Russia Samara mission in March. Two weeks ago, he traveled with several other missionaries to the Czech Republic to renew his visa.

"They were in Prague for about three days," said Elder Dean's mother, Sandie Dean. "They still went tracting (door to door) in Prague with the limited language skills they had. It was not a vacation by any means."

The Deans and other American families with missionaries in Russia wondered what would happen when the new Russian visa laws were announced.

"In January they told us they would have to go back to their home country every three months," Sandie Dean said. "I'm glad they haven't had to do that."

The law's text also requires foreigners to spend 90 days outside the country for every 90 days in Russia, a provision that hasn't been enforced, Brigham Young University Russian Professor Grant Lundberg said.

Lundberg is the Russia section head in BYU's department of German and Slavic languages. The university's study abroad program designs trips to Russia to last fewer than 90 days to avoid visa issues, he said.

"A lot of our students are returned missionaries," Lundberg said. "The developments there probably will have a long-term effect on our program, although we don't know what the long-term decisions will be."

Dean said her son and his companions flew 800 miles to Prague, a costly exercise for church leaders.

"It's terribly expensive to travel to another country, wait for a visa and return," said Gary Browning, the first president of the Finland Helsinki East mission when it opened in 1990 with responsibility to begin missionary work in Russia.

Now an LDS patriarch, Browning traveled to Russia this spring. He sees an opportunity in the new situation.

"The church really is growing in its maturity," he said. "All of us would love to have the missionaries remain there. There could be a silver lining to this cloud, because this may give the members an additional incentive to play their roles more effectively, and to find relatives and neighbors and work associates who would be interested in the church."

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