MOLDOVA: Government Fails in Bessarabian Church Appeal.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 10 April 2002

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has rejected the Moldovan government's attempt to appeal against last December's ruling that its refusal to register the Bessarabian Orthodox Church violated its commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights. Court official Cristina Sandru, who has been responsible for handling the case, confirmed to Keston News Service on 9 April from Strasbourg that on 27 March the five-member panel of judges refused to allow the appeal to go forward to the Grand Chamber of the court. "The judgment in the case of the Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia is now final," she declared. "The text of the [December] judgment remains the same."

This decision means that the original verdict, handed down on 13 December, now enters into force. By refusing to register the Church, the court ruled, the state was effectively denying it the right to operate legally (see KNS 14 December 2001),

Under the ruling, the government must now pay compensation to the Bessarabian Church of 27,025 Euros (24,400 US dollars or 16,800 British pounds) "for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage and for legal costs and expenses". Interest is chargeable on the compensation - calculated at French interest rates - if it is not paid within three months.

Metropolitan Petru Paduraru, leader of the Bessarabian Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate, welcomed the Church's vindication by the court. "The Strasbourg court has achieved justice for us," he told Keston by telephone from Chisinau on 10 April. "The five judges have now given us the reason to gain registration." However, he was sceptical as to whether the government would go ahead and register the Church, which has been seeking such registration for the past decade. "The Communists in power keep saying one thing, then another," he complained. "We don't know what they're going to do." He reported that the Church again submitted a registration application on 16 March to the prime minister's office. He added that he had no idea when the government will pay the compensation it now owes the Church, although he said that was of less importance than registration.

John Warwick Montgomery, the British-based lawyer who represented the Bessarabian Church at the court, also welcomed the final ruling, although he said the court could not have ruled otherwise. "Everyone was convinced the government was wrong," he told Keston on 9 April. "December's ruling was unanimous - even the Moldovan judge on the case supported the ruling. The government's appeal was simply a repetition of the same arguments they had already presented and which had been rejected."

Vitaly Prilog, the Ministry of Justice official who was the government's agent to the ECHR, was unavailable by telephone on 10 April, so Keston was unable to get his reaction to Strasbourg's final rejection of the government's case. However, Sergei Yatsko, who took up office in March as director of the State Service for the Affairs of Cults, told Keston from Chisinau on 9 April that he could not comment on the rejection as the government had "not yet received official documentation" from Strasbourg. He declined to say whether the Bessarabian Church would now be registered and when it could expect to receive the compensation from the government.

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 practise their religion within the Moscow Patriarchate Church. The case launched at Strasbourg by the Church and eleven of its leading members was declared admissible on 7 June 2001 (No. 45701/99).

The Bessarabian case has been watched closely by believers in a number of member states of the Council of Europe whose religious communities have been denied registration on arbitrary grounds. (END)