MOLDOVA: Government To Contest Strasbourg Ruling In Favour Of Bessarabian Church.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 December 2001

In the wake of the ruling issued yesterday (13 December) by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg that the Moldovan government has violated the rights of believers of the Bessarabian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church by refusing for the past decade to grant registration, officials have insisted to Keston News Service that they will protest. "We think they made the wrong decision," Gheorghe Armasu, chairman of the State Service for the Affairs of Cults, told Keston from the Moldovan capital Chisinau on 14 December. "We didn't violate their rights." Members of the Bessarabian Church - which is an integral part of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate - have welcomed the ruling. "We are thankful to the court that it reached the right decision," the Church's leader in Moldova, Metropolitan Petru Paduraru, told Keston on 14 December. "We have the right to belong to the Romanian Patriarchate. We only want our rights."

John Warwick Montgomery, a British-based lawyer who represented the Bessarabian Church at the court, also welcomed the ruling. "The ECHR judgment entirely vindicated the Bessarabian Orthodox Church's position, as we knew it would," he told Keston on 13 December, immediately after the judgment was handed down. "The Moldovan government had - and has - no business deciding what is a proper church and what is not. That is for the religious believers to determine, not the state."

Officials in Chisinau were reluctant to comment, claiming they had not yet received the text of the ruling (although the full text was posted on the ECHR's website at the time it was released). "We have no comment as we haven't seen the official text of the judgment," Valeriu Turia, chief spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, told Keston from Chisinau on 14 December. "I just spoke to the head of the Council of Europe department of our ministry and he does not yet have the text." He declined Keston's offer to email the text of the judgment, saying the ministry's email system was not working at present. Likewise Armasu refused to comment in detail. "We will not give a comment until we have read the judgment, which we don't yet have."

The Bessarabian Church lodged the case with the Strasbourg court - to which Moldova is subject as a member of the Council of Europe - in 1998. The Moldovan Supreme Court had ruled in December 1997 that recognition of the Church could only be resolved by the state-recognised Orthodox Church subject to the Moscow Patriarchate, from which the Bessarabian Church had broken away, and that any interference by the Moldovan authorities would only exacerbate the conflict. The Supreme Court also held that the individual applicants and other members of the Bessarabian church were free to practice their religion within the Moscow Patriarchate Church. The case launched at Strasbourg by the Church and eleven leading members of it was declared admissible on 7 June 2001 (No. 45701/99).

In its verdict, the court ruled that by refusing to register the Church, the state was effectively denying the Church the right to operate legally. "In particular, its priests could not take divine service, its members could not meet to practise their religion and, not having legal personality, it was not entitled to judicial protection of its assets. Accordingly, the Court took the view that the Moldovan Government's refusal to recognise the applicant church constituted interference with the right of that church and the other applicants to freedom of religion." The ECHR added that by making the Bessarabian Church's recognition dependent on another, separate religious denomination (the Moscow Patriarchate church), the Moldovan government "had failed to discharge their duty of neutrality and impartiality". Without legal recognition it was unable to defend its rights in Moldovan courts.

The ECHR also criticised the Supreme Court ruling of 1997 that had claimed the Bessarabian Church's members had full rights to exercise religious freedom within the Moscow Patriarchate Church. The ECHR noted that "in making that ruling the Supreme Court of Justice had not replied to the applicants' main complaints, namely their wish to meet to practise their religion collectively within a church distinct from the Metropolitan Church of Moldova [which is subject to the Moscow Patriarchate]."

The court ordered the Moldovan government to pay the applicants 27,025 Euros (24,400 US dollars or 16,800 British pounds) "for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage and for legal costs and expenses". Asked whether the Moldovan government would pay this sum, Armasu declined to say, repeating that his government would contest the ruling. Likewise Turia of the Foreign Ministry declined to say. Metropolitan Petru insisted to Keston that the financial compensation was irrelevant to their demands. "We won't demand the money if they apologise to us and give us our rights."

As the Moldovan government intends to contest the ruling (it has three months to do so), it remains unclear whether the Ministry of Justice will now register the Church. "We trust that the Moldovan authorities will now immediately recognise and register the Bessarabian Metropolitanate," John Warwick Montgomery declared. "Indeed, they have no choice in the matter: if they intend to remain in the European community, they must follow its rules, the most important being the freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights, Articles 9 and 13 of which the Court unanimously found they had violated by treating Bessarabian Orthodox Church members as second- class citizens." Metropolitan Petru told Keston that his Church wanted immediate state registration. "We want to register. They have always said we had no right to exist as we were not registered." Asked whether he believed the government would now grant registration, he was cautious: "Let's see. You can expect anything from the communists." Told that Armasu had informed Keston that the government would contest the ruling, Metropolitan Petru described Armasu - who worked in the old Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs - as a "former communist and former KGB officer", whose office had "closed churches and sent priests to Siberia".

Metropolitan Petru told Keston his Church - which he says has some 150 congregations, 70 places of worship and 89 priests - had a further five or six cases of harassment of priests and congregations that they intended to send to the ECHR. "The authorities persecute us, call in the police, close our churches and occupy our parishes with the police and mafia." He cited the latest case as the detention in mid-November for two days of a priest from Pelenesti, Father Vyacheslav Moraru. "He was held just for being a member of our Church. He faces administrative charges and has already had two hearings, though no final verdict has been reached."

John Warwick Montgomery believes the Strasbourg ruling will have wider implications for religious liberty across the Council of Europe countries. "The larger significance of this case is that from now on it is going to be far more difficult, if not impossible, for states-parties to the European Convention to use registration of religious organisations as a smokescreen for discriminating against groups they do not like. There is nothing wrong with requirements that churches register with the government: but there is a gigantic human rights problem when governments (like Moldova) employ registration as a device to cast worthy religious groups into outer legal darkness." (END)