MOLDOVA/TRANSDNIESTER: Second Baptist Church Threatened With Demolition.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 4 December 2001

Just three weeks before a Baptist church in the town of Tiraspol, the capital of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, is scheduled for enforced demolition, Keston News Service has learnt that a second Baptist church affiliated with the Tiraspol church has also been threatened with demolition. Pastor Vasili Timoshchuk, pastor of the Tiraspol church, told Keston from Transdniester on 3 December that the head of the local administration in the village of Krasnoe in Slobozia district south of Tiraspol issued the verbal threat "because the congregation is not registered as a religious organisation". "No official warning has yet been received," he added. Timoshchuk insisted that the Krasnoe church - which was opened in September - was built with planning permission. "The building plans were approved and it was built exactly to the size on the plans."

Timoshchuk alleges that the threat to the Krasnoe Baptist church followed complaints about the congregation's activity to the Transdniestran authorities from the local Orthodox priest. Keston has been unable to confirm this claim.

The commission of the State Building Inspectorate told members of the Tiraspol Baptist congregation on 8 November that if it does not pull down its prayer house or transfer it to residential use by 25 December the authorities would demolish it, on the grounds that the building had been put up illegally (see KNS 22 November 2001).

Pastor Timoshchuk conceded that the church had been built without planning permission, but said it had already stood for fourteen and a half years. "It was built on private land as a light, temporary structure during the perestroika era of the late 1980s when religious freedom began," he told Keston. "No-one complained about it at the time, neither the authorities nor the neighbours."

Timoshchuk reported that difficulties intensified three or four years ago, when the local State Security Ministry, the successor to the KGB in the unrecognised Transdniester Republic, started putting pressure on the Baptists. "They demanded a written statement explaining why we were not registered. We wrote that according to the law our pastors would then be required to seek accreditation. We said this would represent unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of our church." He added that the Baptists had written several times to the Transdniester authorities demanding a change to the local religion law, which dates from 22 August 1995.

Timoshchuk's congregation, like all congregations belonging to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists in any of the former Soviet republics, refuses to register, arguing that such registration would lay them open to state meddling.

Earlier this year, Timoshchuk reported, the Transdniester authorities began investigating the church building. When they discovered it had been built without planning approval the church was forced to pay what Timoshchuk described as a "small fine". "Usually when the fine is paid they then legalise the building. However, they refused to do this because our congregation does not have registration."

Pyotr Zalozhkov, the commissioner of religion and cults who reports to the president of the unrecognised entity, Igor Smirnov, claimed that the order to destroy the Tiraspol Baptist church was taken strictly on planning grounds. "It is an illegal building put up without permission," he told Keston by telephone from Tiraspol on 3 December. "They have no documents saying it was built legally. It must therefore be removed. That is the law."

Zalozhkov claimed that the unregistered status of the congregation was not an issue. "I don't connect registration with the question of the building. No-one is banned from holding religious meetings in their home." He declared that Transdniestran law does not ban unregistered religious organisations. Asked why the authorities had suddenly decided to take action against a building that had stood for nearly fifteen years he declared: "It is difficult to say when it was built." Told that the Baptists say it is fourteen and a half years old he responded: "There are no documents that prove that." Zalozhkov confirmed that he had never been inside the building, but said he had driven past it many times. "It is a two-storey building and is clearly visible from the street."

Timoshchuk described the building to Keston as just one storey with a balcony, adding that it did not even have any foundations, let alone a cellar as Zalozhkov maintained. Timoshchuk said he was prepared to have the church examined by independent observers, such as officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) office in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. (END)