MOLDOVA: Muslims Challenge Denial of Reistration in Strasbourg

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 June 2002

Moldova's three thousand strong Muslim community has lodged a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg to the government's refusal to grant their faith registered status. Talgat Masaev, the leader of the Spiritual Organisation of Muslims in Moldova, told Keston News Service from the Moldovan capital Chisinau on 24 June that those attending Friday prayers at the three rented venues in the city regularly have their identities checked by the police and are even filmed as they leave. "There were no police last Friday [21 June], but the previous week they turned up at two of the three venues," Masaev told Keston. Sergei Yatsko, chairman of the State Service for the Affairs of Cults, was unable to explain why the Muslims had been refused registration. "I don't know," he told Keston from Chisinau on 21 June. "There was a decision by the Supreme Court and I can't comment on that."

One official told Keston that there is now a moratorium on registering new faiths until the planned amendments to the religion law are enacted (see separate KNS article).

Masaev told Keston that several hundred Muslims regularly attend Friday prayers at the three centres in Chisinau. The imams are chosen from among Arabic students with a good knowledge of Islam who are studying in Moldova. He said the community first lodged an application to the government to be recognised as a faith in 2000. "Twenty of us got together and decided to lodge an application, though only eleven actually signed the application. The rest were too afraid." However, the application got nowhere. "There was no reply at all."

The community then went to court, but a lower court rejected their case. The Muslims took their case to the Supreme Court of Appeals in February 2001, but in May 2001 it sent the case back to the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court advised both the Muslims' representatives and the government's representatives to follow the strict procedures of the law, since not all of these had been followed during the registration process. On 8 October, the Court of Appeals ruled against the Muslims and they appealed to the Supreme Court. In a final decision on 24 April of this year - signed by judges Vasile Tataru, Natalia Moldovanu and Iurie Sumcov - the Supreme Court rejected the community's appeal against the earlier rulings, arguing that the Muslims had failed to comply with the registration procedure. In growing frustration, the Muslim community decided last winter to take their case to Strasbourg.

Masaev complained that the decision to deny registration appears to lie in the hands of the deputy prime minister, Valerian Cristea. "I was told at the government reception office that he handles religious issues. However, I can't get beyond the reception point." Masaev adds that Yatsko will not discuss the issue with him. "Yatsko told me that until he gets a decision from the government he can't get involved."

However, Cristea's aide Stefan Culia told Keston on 24 June that another official, Ion Rabacu, is in charge of religious affairs in the government. Contacted the same day, Rabacu told Keston that he has only held the post for three days and that he cannot speak on behalf of his predecessor (whom he declined to name) or the government. "I'm not the prime minister, the deputy prime minister or the president." Asked how the government reacted to the Muslims' decision to appeal to the ECHR, he responded: "Let them appeal to Strasbourg. It's their right."

An official at the ECHR told Keston that the Muslim community lodged its case against the Moldovan government on 15 December 2001 (provisional reference No. 12282/02). "The applicant organisation complains under Articles 9, 11, 13 and 14 of the European Human Rights Convention about the State authorities' repeated refusals to register the organisation," Victor Baiesu, legal secretary at the court, told Keston from Strasbourg on 31 May.

Serghei Ostaf, a Chisinau-based lawyer from the Moldovan Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, is acting for the Muslims at Strasbourg. He told Keston by telephone on 24 June that it is likely to be more than a year before the ECHR rules on whether the case is admissible.

Asked why he believed the Muslims had been denied registration, Ostaf declared: "The government acts very much from a Christian-biased position. Most of the recognised religious faiths are Christian or Christian-derived." He believes it is also possible the government is waiting for a more pliant Muslim leader to come forward. "Masaev is a very serious and knowledgeable Muslim and is a respected man with higher education. He does not bow to anyone." Masaev himself told Keston that he has no idea why registration is being denied. "Maybe it is connected to fear of Islam. I try to explain that we are not connected to Islamic terrorism or anything like that."

In a similar case, the Moldovan government repeatedly denied registration to the Bessarabian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, arguing that a branch of the Orthodox Church subject to the Moscow Patriarchate was already registered. In 1998 the Bessarabian Church lodged a case at the ECHR, which eventually ruled that the government was wrong to deny registration and ordered the government to pay compensation to the Church of 27,025 Euros (24,400 US dollars or 16,800 British pounds). The government's appeal against the ruling was finally rejected on 27 March (see KNS 10 April 2002). Likewise denied registration is the True Orthodox Church, despite a Supreme Court ruling in its favour on 29 May (see KNS 31 May 2002).

Masaev reported that, in addition to the three communities in Chisinau, there is another Muslim community in the town of Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway Transdniester region in eastern Moldova, which is outside the control of the central government. "Their KGB summoned and interrogated community members last year, but the community can meet for worship," he told Keston. (END)