“The Passion of the Church”: Religious Topic in Moldova Has Sharpened

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Sergiu CEBAN
Given the political tendencies, the aggravation of the church issue was only a matter of time. It is obvious that the strategic goal of the authorities is to neutralize the centers of Russian influence in Moldova, one of the last strongholds of which is the Moldovan Church within the Russian Orthodox Church
Recently, a letter from Metropolitan Vladimir of Chisinau and All Moldova to Patriarch Kirill popped up on social media. In his address, the hierarch described the sad consequences of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for the Moldovan Orthodox Church, condemned Moscow’s attempts to interfere in its affairs, and also accused the ROC of the fact that because of Russia’s foreign policy course, the population’s trust in the Moldovan Metropolis has fallen dramatically, while the influence of the Bessarabian Metropolis continues to grow. The letter being published had a bombshell effect. Since the church is a closed conservative organization, no one could guess that relations between the metropolis and the Moscow Patriarchate were so complicated and that the metropolitan could express his claims so openly and sharply. However, experts familiar with the situation have long predicted the complication of the situation in Moldova’s spiritual life, which is a direct reflection of the state of affairs in politics and society. The history of Moldovan Orthodoxy goes back many centuries, but today’s religious situation has developed over the last two centuries. In 1812, after Moldova’s incorporation into the Russian Empire, the diocese of Chisinau was formed, which remained part of the Russian Orthodox Church until 1918. Then, after the unification of Bessarabia and Romania, the local diocese was transferred to the Romanian Orthodox Church, which established the Metropolis of Bessarabia. In 1944, following the establishment of the MSSR, the diocese of Chisinau returned to the bosom of the Russian Orthodox Church, where it formally remains to this day. After the proclamation of Moldova’s independence in 1992, the synod of the ROC declared the Moldovan Orthodox Church its self-governing part. Claiming to restore historical justice and canonical succession, Romania also restored the activity of its religious institution in the early 90s. Therefore, three decades later, in addition to the Moldovan Metropolis, the Metropolis of Bessarabia, subordinate to Bucharest, functions in parallel in our country. Today the ratio of parishes and religious organizations under their jurisdiction is approximately 1 to 4. At the same time, the Metropolis of Bessarabia tends to grow in the number of parishioners and church institutions, at the expense of the gradual absorption of the Russian Orthodox Church’s parishes. Recurrent conflicts in different parts of the country between priests and parishioners of churches belonging to two different dioceses have become some kind of routine over the past five years. The most obvious example this summer is the exodus of four priests from the Criuleni and Dubasari districts to the Romanian Orthodox Church, who were deprived of their holy orders by Metropolitan Vladimir as an admonition. Apparently, the head of the Moldovan church has no financial or other instruments, apart from repressive ones, to retain the ministers of religion. Therefore, one of the main threats for Vladimir are the activities of the Metropolis of Bessarabia, generously sponsored politically and financially by the Romanian government. In the current regional and internal political context, the Romanian Orthodox Church sees a direct opportunity to expand its influence on Moldovan territory. Our authorities are also ready to provide the necessary assistance to the Romanian hierarchs to increase their role and position in the spiritual life of Moldova, for instance, by transferring part of the historic building of the National Library in Chisinau. Early this year, the Metropolitan of Chisinau and All Moldova already signaled that relations between the authorities and the Metropolis had significantly deteriorated. He lamented the deliberate expulsion from socially significant processes in the country and the interruption of communication with the political leadership. In the context of the Ukrainian events, it would be difficult to expect a different attitude towards a religious organization that is a projection of Russian humanitarian influence. There are a number of reasons for Vladimir’s sharp escalation of relations with the Moscow clergy, including the processes taking place in the Orthodox world, especially in the post-Soviet space. First of all, we have Ukraine’s example, which is painfully hard but steadily getting rid of inter-church ties with the Moscow patriarchate, completely reorganizing the system of spiritual life in the country. The example of the Latvian local self-governing church within the Russian Orthodox Church, which has a similar status to the Moldovan one, is even more illustrative. After a draft amendment to the law “On the Latvian Orthodox Church” implying full independence from the Russian Orthodox Church was approved last year at the initiative of the Latvian president, the local metropolis had no choice but to obey the law and actually declare autocephaly. Despite Moscow’s objections and appeals to the fact that only the Russian Orthodox Church can bestow independence, the Council of the Latvian Orthodox Church almost unanimously voted in favor of an independent status and sent an appeal to Patriarch Kirill for a decision on the canonical stature of the Latvian Orthodox Church. Given the political tendencies within Moldova, the aggravation of the church issue was only a matter of time. It is obvious that the strategic goal of the authorities is to break relations with Moscow and neutralize the centers of Russian influence in Moldova, one of the last strongholds of which is the Moldovan local church within the ROC. Therefore, Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter is only the first alarm bell for the ROC, as the Moldovan authorities, who have the opportunity to adopt all the necessary legislative changes, will definitely have their say after this. Russia appears to be losing the spiritual struggle on its immediate borders, and we are witnessing a second stage of the post-Soviet space’s disintegration, this time on the religious ground. Of course, Moscow counts on the fact that, according to the canons and procedures, autocephaly is impossible without the will of the local Orthodox Church, to which its part that wants this very autonomy currently belongs. In addition, autocephaly is unlikely to be functional without pan-Orthodox consent, which is expressed by the unanimity of the Councils of autocephalous churches. The complexity of various factors only distances any clear solution to the religious issue in our country. The Moldovan Metropolis’s attempts to persuade the Russian Orthodox Church to accept the inevitable are likely to continue, since its church hierarchs see the preservation of their positions in disassociating themselves from Moscow. Whatever the outcome of this game, a change in the status quo in Moldova’s spiritual life is likely to open a Pandora’s box. In particular, the issue of the Tiraspol-Dubasari diocese and the canonical belonging of the left bank of the Dniester will inevitably arise, which, by the way, is also claimed by the Metropolis of Bessarabia. The distancing of the Moldovan Metropolis from the Russian Orthodox Church may lead to directly opposite processes, up to breaking the spiritual ties between the banks of the Dniester and giving the local episcopate a special status. We should keep in mind the Ukrainian religious factor and Kyiv’s long-standing interests in relation to Moldovan parishes with a compact residence of ethnic Ukrainians. Thus, at the meeting of the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate held on 21 October, Patriarch Filaret spoke up about the creation of a new diocese and Moldovan exarchate on Moldova’s territory resulting in a relevant decision. The new diocese will be called “Riscani”.