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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Missionary Faces Money Rap

An American missionary is facing a possible prison sentence in a central Russian city for minor violations of currency laws, in a case that his wife said smacks of religious persecution.


Charles Songe, 38, a member of the Living Word Church in Houma, Louisiana, first came to Russia in August 1993, when he and his wife, Katrina, settled in Saransk, some 400 miles east of Moscow, in search of converts.


According to Katrina Songe, who told her story from Louisiana in a telephone interview Tuesday, Songe and his family had no problems for two years until, on May 16, 1995, he was visited in their home by 13 agents of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who questioned him in connection with "currency violations" they alleged took place in his mission.


Katrina Songe said she and her husband were questioned about two types of violations. The first was an allegation that they had changed money outside of a bank, the second that they had occasionally paid their employees in dollars.


Initially, Songe was only questioned as a witness in the case. Less than two months later, on July 4, 1995, Songe's status in the case was upgraded from witness to accused. He was arrested but was released on his own recognizance until his trial began on March 22.


The Saransk prosecutor's office could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Olivia Hilton of the U.S. Embassy press office confirmed the incident had taken place and the trial was underway.


"The U.S. Embassy is following developments in the case, and the judicial process is continuing," she said, adding that a U.S. consular officer, Patricia Crowley, had traveled to Saransk to attend the first day of the trial last week.


Katrina Songe claims that her husband's case has nothing to do with currency laws, and is instead a case of religious persecution.


"We were told by the KGB officers who interrogated us that the case had its origins with the local Orthodox church making complaints against us," she said. "We were told that there were factions within the church that resented the presence of missionaries."


The press office for the Orthodox church in Moscow declined to comment on the case. Church officials in Saransk could not be reached for comment.


The case has already attracted the attention of a host of politicians in both Russia and the United States. Representative Billy Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, has sent formal complaints to the Russian government. Last week, Katrina Songe received a phone call from former Louisiana gubernatorial candidate David Duke, who said that he had received a message from Vladmir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democrats.


"Mr. Duke said that Mr. Zhirinovsky conveyed his sincerest apologies on behalf of the Russian nation, and said he would do everything he could to help," Mrs. Songe said.


The charges filed against the Songes are for relatively common practices -- paying employees in U.S. dollars and exchanging dollars for rubles outside of a registered bank. The Songes claim that they were not aware of the law and simply paid their employees in dollars when their employees asked them to.


Article 88 of the Russian criminal code, a Soviet-era statute outlawing the possession of foreign hard currency, has never been erased from the books. Another law prohibiting cash transactions in foreign currency was passed on the initiative of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in January 1994.


If convicted, Songe could face a prison term of up to eight years.