Is Moldova on the Brink of Church Conflict?

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Alexei BARBA
With the strong support of the Romanian government and the endorsement of the current Moldovan authorities, the Metropolis of Bessarabia is rapidly spreading its influence throughout the country, supplanting the Moldovan Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate
Under the current government, the development of ties with our neighbor across the Prut is so active that already many experts are talking about a new version of ‘unirea’. But this time in a soft manner, without direct unification, but with the creation of common economic, political, infrastructural, energy and, among other things, spiritual spaces. The latter implies specifically ecclesiastical issues. For our country, where the overwhelming majority of the population considers themselves faithful (95% of them are Orthodox Christians), the topic is much more important than it may seem at first glance. For instance, when citizens do not trust the state power institutions, the church becomes, on the one hand, a kind of “outlet” and, on the other hand, an important tool for influencing people’s minds and moods. Moreover, social surveys reveal that the church is the most trusted in our country - the figures range from 66 to 80%. And there’s a serious struggle brewing in this realm. As you know, there are two churches on our territory: the Metropolis of Bessarabia of the Romanian Church and the larger Metropolis of Chisinau and All Moldova (Moldovan Orthodox Church) under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Metropolis of Bessarabia was re-established on 14 September 1992, as the successor to the one that existed from 1925 to 1944 during the previous ‘unirea’ period. The funny thing is that for the first ten years, the Moldovan authorities did not even want to register it and were forced to do so only after a special recommendation by PACE and the adoption of a relevant decision by the ECHR. Since then, it has been actively proselytizing the residents in Moldova. The number of parishes and congregants reportable to it steadily grows. The rate of congregants’ enrolment has increased in recent years with the open support of our authorities. The Metropolis of the Russian Orthodox Church, with more than 1,200 parishes, still has a multiple advantage, but it is decreasing every year. By now, the Metropolis of Bessarabia slowly but surely becomes an important lever of influence on citizens. Although under the law Moldova is a secular country and the church is separated from the state, in fact, that’s not true. On the contrary, in our volatile times, when everything and everyone is politicized, belonging to one or another church often correlates with (geo)political orientation. In our case - European integration or preserving ties with Russia. With material and resource support, the Romanian Orthodox Church is engaged in propaganda work with the population, co-operates with the authorities, carries out charitable and other activities. Back in 2016, Romania’s ruling party adopted a strategic document “The Republic of Moldova Is a Priority of Romania’s policy”, which envisages support for the Metropolis of Bessarabia to “preserve and develop the Romanian identity” in Moldova. At the end of 2020, Ana Gutu, state secretary of the Romanian government’s Department for Relations with RM, and Archbishop Petru of Bessarabia signed a donation agreement to “increase the Metropolis’s visibility”. For this purpose, it received multimedia equipment, computers and office facilities. On 13 July this year, the same department and the Romanian Patriarchate signed a protocol of cooperation, which, among other things, implicates the implementation of projects to promote the spiritual, cultural and national identity of “Romanians in Bessarabia”. It envisages the construction and repair of churches on Moldovan territory, the maintenance of museums oriented towards the preservation of Romanian traditions and customs, the organization of cultural and educational events, as well as the equipping of libraries. Last February, at a joint meeting of the Moldovan and Romanian governments, the Prime Minister of the neighboring state, Nicolae Ciuca, asked his Moldovan colleagues to put every effort to strengthen the Metropolis of Bessarabia. In response, he received appropriate assurances from Natalia Gavrilita. Romania spares no expense in “supporting” Moldovan bishops who decide to change their “residence”. According to some reports, those who decide to move from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Romanian one is paid up to 2,000 euros. Moreover, these bishops receive a monthly “allowance” from the Romanian government, which estimates up to 600 euros. The prospect of accelerated obtaining of Romanian citizenship also attracts priests. Of course, such defections are criticized by the Moldovan Orthodox Church, but it does not bother anyone. The roots of the problem are largely in the educational sphere. For instance, in some eparchies the number of clergies who have graduated from seminaries in Romania now reaches 20-25%. We may assume that soon the number will increase. In addition, starting this year, a theological specialty will open at USM: the chancellors of the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi and the state university signed an agreement that will expand the Romanian university’s participation in USM activity. The strengthening of the Romanian Orthodox Church position is pretty fruitful. We can’t help but remember 2018, when 165 localities in Moldova adopted the Declaration of Unification with Romania. At the same time, in the districts and localities that signed this declaration, either parishes of the Metropolis of Bessarabia operate everywhere, or there is a conflict situation caused by attempts to seize churches and parishes of the Metropolis of Chisinau and All Moldova. In addition to the institutional aspect, the physical presence expanded. At the beginning of 2021, the Metropolis’s of Bessarabia eparchy announced the construction of a cathedral and a Romanian cultural center in Balti. A land plot of more than 7 thousand m2 was acquired with the financial help of the Romanian government. The construction of the Metropolis’s of Bessarabia cathedral in Chisinau is at the final stage. The Romanian ambassador to Moldova has recently checked the progress of the works and noted that the cathedral “represents an indisputable symbol of Romanian Christianity on the both banks of the Prut”. We cannot but recall the notorious story about the transfer of the Moldovan National Library’s building in favor of the Metropolis of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Our authorities are not just negligent about the activities of the Romanian Church, they support it. Even small but symbolic details point to it. For example, last year for the first time an official delegation of the Bessarabia Metropolis travelled to Israel for the Holy Fire. And at the end of 2022, the parliament, at the suggestion of the Romanian authorities, approved in two sessions a draft according to which the Archbishop of Bessarabia was allowed to use diplomatic passports. We can say that the standoff between the two churches in Moldova has not yet gained full force, but its acute phase is just around the corner. The two Metropolises are already engaging in verbal skirmishes, accusing each other of all sorts of sins. Of course, there is also a political subtext: Romanian “colleagues” accuse representatives of the canonical church of “subordination to Moscow”, “intrusion of Russian special services” and “cooperation with the unconstitutional authorities of Transnistria”. Meanwhile, our government stirs the pot, in violation of a secular state’s principles, supporting one of the parties (it is clear which one), as evidenced by the clearly ordered articles against the Moldovan Orthodox Church in the pro-government media.