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2 U.S. Missionaries Kidnapped in Russia

Europe: Ransom note is found after Mormons are abducted. Safety measures are taken for others in area.

March 21, 1998|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Two Mormon missionaries have been kidnapped from the Volga River region of Saratov 500 miles southeast of Moscow, U.S. and Russian authorities said Friday.

The Russian Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, has begun searching for the two 20-year-old Americans but would give no details of the case.

Church officials in Salt Lake City said the two men, Andrew Lee Propst, 20, of Lebanon, Ore., and Travis Robert Tuttle, 20, of Gilbert, Ariz., were abducted Wednesday. The missionaries were taken hostage from a Mormon church in the region, according to the Itar-Tass news agency.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said a ransom note demanding $300,000 was left on another church member's doorstep after the kidnapping, the Associated Press reported.

"The Department of State--including the U.S. Embassy in Moscow--is taking every appropriate step and is monitoring the situation closely," embassy press spokesman Richard Hoagland said. "This is a very grave matter, and to avoid jeopardizing the safety of the individuals who have been abducted, we are not going to make any further comment at this time."

Church officials said the two missing men were assigned to the Samara region; the kidnapping occurred in neighboring Saratov. The two lived together and often traveled together, the officials said.

Don LeFevre, a spokesman for the church in Salt Lake City, said officials have taken steps to ensure the safety of up to 100 missionaries assigned to the area. He would not elaborate.

"All we can do is rely on faith that they're going to come home to us in safety and that our savior is by their side at this time," said Roy Tuttle, father of one of the abductees.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, a number of church groups have sent missionaries to Russia, but the efforts of the Mormon church have sparked more controversy than most. The church has six missions in Russia, with more than 600 missionaries and 5,000 members.

Retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, who was President Boris N. Yeltsin's national security advisor, criticized the Mormons in 1996 as "mold and filth which have come to destroy the state." He later apologized.

Last year, Yeltsin signed a law that will sharply restrict the activities of foreign missionaries starting in 2000. Church groups that have not been operating in Russia for at least 15 years will be barred from producing or distributing religious literature, establishing schools or engaging in other proselytizing activity.

The kidnapping of the two missionaries quickly received high-level attention from Mormon representatives in Washington.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) called the kidnapping "extraordinarily troubling." Rep. Merrill Cook (R-Utah) said the "kidnapping of these two young men is appalling." He called for "aggressive American involvement in getting these boys back safely."

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