MOLDOVA/TRANSDNIESTER: Methodist Protests at Harassment.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 31 January 2002

Moldova's Methodist leader, Dmitri Hantil, has protested against what he claims is harassment by the authorities of the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester, including the denial of registration for its two communities in the unrecognised entity and KGB pressure to cut his ties with the outside world. "We have requested registration for the past six years, lodging our first application in 1997," Hantil told Keston News Service from Bendery/Tighina on 29 January. "They have refused - and more, threatening us. They told us the state is Orthodox and no sectarians are allowed here, especially Methodists." An official in the office of the commissioner of religion and cults dismissed Hantil's claims as "fabricated". "It's not pleasant to hear this rubbish," Tamara Kovalchuk told Keston from Tiraspol on 31 January. "Remember the bit in the Bible when it talks about the 'father of lies'. He has given you false information. It is not professional for you to publish it."

Hantil complained that a Captain Soin of the National Security Ministry (Transdniester's successor to the KGB) visited him at home on 7 December. "He warned me that if I do not cease cooperating with international organisations and conveying to them distorted information on the TMR [Trandniestran Moldovan Republic], I would be punished as an enemy of the TMR," Hantil wrote in an appeal to the Chisinau Mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 12 December. Captain Soin alleged that Hantil was "an agent of a foreign secret service, using church activities as a cover". "Therefore unless I put an end to all my preacher activities, they will be regarded as an open confrontation with the TMR authorities and I will be reprimanded in a manner that is required in such cases," Hantil wrote. He told Keston that Soin had returned on 9 December to warn him to stop applying for registration for his churches with the Transdniestran authorities.

The Methodists - who began working locally eight years ago - now have four communities in Moldova, two in Transdniester - Tiraspol and Bendery/Tighina - and two in government-controlled areas of Moldova - the capital Chisinau and Comrat. An official of the Moscow headquarters of the United Methodist Church - which is headed by Bishop Rudiger Minor and which includes congregations in Russia, Ukraine and Moldova - confirmed to Keston on 31 January that the congregations Hantil leads are fully-fledged members of the Church. Hantil reported that his four communities together have some 150 adult members, plus children. An application to register the communities with the Moldovan authorities is currently underway.

Pyotr Zalozhkov, the commissioner of religion and cults who reports to the president of the unrecognised entity, Igor Smirnov, was out of the office on 30 and 31 January. However Kovalchuk, his assistant, claimed that Hantil had applied for registration for his churches only once, "several years ago". "He came and gave in his list of founders," she told Keston. "We examined it and discovered that half were people who had been sentenced and the other half were under criminal investigation. We refused the application and gave him the refusal in writing." Under Article 14 of Transdniester's law on religion of 23 August 1995, only ten citizens are required to form a registered religious organisation. Kovalchuk declined to say why the fact that the founders might have served sentences or be under investigation would prevent them being founders of a religious organisation.

She said she had not seen Hantil since then. "I don't know what's happened to him," she claimed. "He's disappeared." Asked whether the Methodists would get registration if they applied again, Kovalchuk responded: "They have not applied again." Pressed by Keston, she declared: "Of course they can register. There is no order preventing it."

Natalya Chernova, the Church's lawyer and also pastor in the Russian town of Veliki Novgorod, disputes Kovalchuk's claims. She told Keston that Hantil had unsuccessfully applied for registration with the Transdniestran authorities three times. "The first time they said they had to examine what kind of church it was. Then they issued a written refusal, based on 'inconsistencies' in the documents," she told Keston on 31 January. "The second time they just told him privately that he would not get registration. Then, in early 2000, Bishop Minor visited Tiraspol and spoke to Zalozhkov. The discussion was very pleasant and there was hope for registration." Chernova said she herself had visited Tiraspol to work on the documentation in May 2000. "Zalozhkov said everything was in order with the application, but after some delay that too was refused."

Hantil said that the two churches can meet privately in members' homes, but that is all. "Officially we are not allowed to rent premises for worship or build churches." He stressed that his communities wanted registration not just to gain legal status, but to be able to start a centre to treat alcoholics and drug-addicts. "Methodists are noted for this work," he told Keston. "Without registration we can't do it."

Hantil identified the local National Security Ministry as the source of the official hostility. "There is constant interference by the KGB - they play the leading role, using old Soviet methods." He singled out in particular the security minister General Vladimir Antyufeev (who, under the name Vadim Shevtsov, was involved in the Soviet OMON riot police in their crackdown in Latvia in 1991). "Everything comes from him."

Security ministry officers had not interrupted services of the Methodist churches in Bendery/Tighina or in Tiraspol, Hantil reported, although in recent years there had been harassment after services of the church in Tiraspol. "At the end of 1999 they even beat some of our church members after the service there." He also claims that he sustained a light gunshot wound to the head in 2000 when he was shot at while walking home late one evening. He maintains he was shot at by security ministry officers, who had been following him. Kovalchuk refused to give Keston the Security Ministry's telephone number to verify Hantil's claims.

Chernova said that despite the authorities' "beautiful words" to visiting Methodist leaders, the authorities have been "very obstructive" over registration. "They do not want to register the Methodists. It is obvious that the Orthodox Church rules there and it is the basic censor as to who is registered and who is not." Hantil is sceptical that the Transdniestran authorities will respond to pressure. "The local authorities are not afraid of anything," he complained to Keston. "They still have Soviet laws and the whole structure is still in the old style."

Matti Sidoroff of the OSCE office in Moldova confirmed to Keston from Chisinau on 31 January that it had received Hantil's appeal and was following the case. (END)