“Spiritual Divide”: Moldova’s Ecclesiastical Landscape Is Changing

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Sergiu CEBAN
The church row in the country intensifies amid escalating struggle for Moldovan parishes between Moscow and Bucharest
The ecclesiastical crisis in Moldova, which gained momentum last autumn, has temporarily fallen out of the media spotlight. Nevertheless, a deep intra-institutional conflict, mainly in the Moldovan Metropolis, continues to simmer. It seems that no one can stop the centrifugal processes that have accumulated there for many years. The dynamics of the transit of its parishes under the jurisdiction of the Metropolis of Bessarabia (MB) can be considered the main indicator of grim inevitability. Thus, just in the last three months, the parishes of the churches of “Protection of the Mother of God” from Ghidighici village, “Assumption of the Mother of God” in Telenesti, “St George the Great Martyr” in the village of Camencea and “Protection of the Mother of God” in the village of Stolniceni, Hincesti district, came under the jurisdiction of the Metropolis of Bessarabia. In turn, the synod of the Orthodox Church of Moldova (OCM) banned six priests of the Chisinau diocese who had joined the Metropolis of Bessarabia from performing services. Overall, in just two years, some 50 churches have already left the OCM, a peak figure in recent decades. Against the background of the mass exodus of parishioners to the Romanian patriarchate, Metropolitan Vladimir and the OCM synod have no choice but to send letters to Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Daniel calling for “fraternal dialogue”. Due the mass transfer of clergy from the Moldovan Metropolis to the Metropolis of Bessarabia, Vladimir even reproaches the Romanian patriarch for employing priests punished for serious misdemeanors. In response, the Romanian Orthodox Church criticized the Moldovan Metropolitan Church for excommunicating priests who leave the Church. In late February, at a meeting of the Holy Synod of the ROC, it was confirmed that all Romanian Orthodox clerics from Moldova who have returned to the MB are canonical clerics, and any disciplinary sanctions against them on the grounds of belonging to the Romanian Orthodox Church are considered null and void according to synodal decree No. 8090 of 19 December 1992. Thus, the Romanian spiritual authorities openly confirmed their interest in further disintegration of the Moldovan Metropolis, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and their unwillingness to seek any compromise. Speaking of religious issues, we cannot ignore a recent sociological survey conducted jointly by researchers from Moldova and Romania. According to it, 43.2% of Moldovan citizens believe that our church should be subordinated to the Moldovan Metropolis, while 32.4% want the parishes to be subordinated to the Metropolis of Bessarabia. At the same time, among the main motives for choosing in favor of the MB are unification with Romania and accession to the European Union. And, most importantly, about 64% of respondents are in favor of the possibility of Patriarch Daniel’s visit to the Republic, while only 15% of citizens view it negatively. These figures clearly show the increased loyalty of our citizens to the Romanian Orthodox Church and to the highest hierarchs of the neighboring country. At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church for the most part relies not on parishioners, but on institutional structures and loyal clergy, which ensures the very nominal legal stay of the Orthodox Church of Moldova within the Russian Patriarchate. The Moscow clergy, which had long remained silent, suddenly noticed that events were rapidly unfolding in the opposite direction from their interests. They said that the decision of the Romanian Orthodox Church’s synod to support the transfer of the Moldovan clergy indicates an intention to foster its expansion into the neighboring canonical territory of another local Orthodox Church in Moldova. In addition, the Russian Orthodox Church believes that Bucharest is pushing the clergy to violate their oaths and go into schism, tempting them not only with financial promises, but also with some kind of indulgence from the punishments imposed for such offences. The fact of Igor Dodon’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill, who reportedly discussed the situation in Moldova and “the role of the Orthodox Church in strengthening spiritual and moral principles in the life of society, supporting culture and the national sovereignty of the country”, indicates that the Russian capital begins to realize the situation. But it would be naive to think that only these issues were raised during the conversation. After returning from Moscow, Dodon held a meeting with Metropolitan Vladimir to discuss the situation in the OCM, expressing concern about recent trends and pressure from the authorities, who are clearly favorable to the transfer of churches to the MB. Obviously, the ex-president acted more as a communicator and mediator in the light of the aggravated contradictions between the Orthodox Church of Moldova and the Russian Orthodox Church. This resulted in an appeal by Metropolitan Vladimir to Patriarch Kirill about the difficult situation of the Moldovan Metropolis, which was leaked and caused a wide resonance. According to some unconfirmed reports, on 7 March Vladimir left for Moscow for almost a month. Bishop Savva of Tiraspol and Dubasari was appointed as the locum tenens for the period of his absence. No one knows the real motives for such a long stay of the Moldovan clergy in the Russian capital. However, it is easy to guess that it will be about the further destiny of the Moldovan Metropolis in the context of everything that is happening both around and inside Moldova. We cannot rule out that the Kremlin is considering the possibility of using the religious factor both in the pre-election period and when arranging the voting at elections/referendum. After a long information wave provoked by another outburst of ecclesiastical split, our authorities, apparently, attempted to extinguish this complex problem. However, external players (not only Moscow) are seriously considering the possibility of activating religious issues for electoral purposes. Polls and measurements in society are by no means random, especially when it comes to the higher clergy. The possible visit of the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church to Moldova will undoubtedly be a landmark event that will not only accelerate the exodus of parishes to the Metropolis of Bessarabia, but will also determine the new canonical boundaries of the Romanian Patriarchate, as well as the final spiritual breakdown between Moldova and Russia. However, we cannot rule out that Moscow may also organize a visit of its patriarch to our country on the eve of the presidential elections, anticipating Chisinau’s inevitable refusal. Thus, the intent is to cause a backlash and mobilize disgruntled parishioners in order to achieve the corresponding internal political and electoral effects.