MOLDOVA: Bessarabian Orthodox Win Ten-Year Registration Battle.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 31 July 2002

After what the secretary for the Bessarabian Orthodox Metropolia described as a "ten-year battle" for state registration, the Moldovan government's State Service for the Affairs of Cults has finally registered the Orthodox jurisdiction, which forms part of the Patriarchate in neighbouring Romania. "Everyone is pleased. We have fought for our rights for ten years. We're equal now," Fr Victor Restesanu told Keston News Service from the Moldovan capital Chisinau on 31 July. "All our problems have been resolved." He added that the fine imposed on the government by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg last December for its refusal to register the Church, which should have been paid in June (see KNS 27 June 2002), was paid a week ago.

It remains unclear, however, whether the Bessarabian Church's victory will help another Orthodox jurisdiction - the True Orthodox Church - to overturn an unofficial ban on its registration (see KNS 24 June 2002). Similarly banned from registering is the country's Muslim community, which has seen its leader Talgat Masaev and other prominent members detained and questioned in recent days (see forthcoming KNS article). An official of the State Service, who declined to give her name, said that Serghei Iatco, the director of the State Service, was unavailable by telephone. "How can I say whether the True Orthodox Church and the Muslims are going to get registration?" she told Keston from Chisinau on 31 July. "Let their representatives come and discuss their case with Serghei Iatco."

Fr Restesanu told Keston that the Bessarabian Church's leader, Metropolitan Petru Paduraru, had received a telephone call from Iatco at 11 am on 30 July, summoning him to a meeting at the government an hour later. "We didn't know if they would give it to us or not." But when Metropolitan Petru arrived with Vlad Cubreacov, a member of the church's council and an opposition parliamentary deputy, Iatco handed them the certificate of registration. "When they returned from the government more than a hundred of our parishioners gathered in celebration," Fr Restesanu reported.

Despite fierce opposition from the rival Moldovan Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the largest religious denomination in Moldova, the government finally bowed to pressure from the ECHR and from the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which on 24 April had given the Moldovan government a deadline of 31 July to register the Church.

The government originally argued that the 1992 religion law would have to be changed before the Bessarabian Church could be registered, claiming that this would take a long time. However, the government presented amendments to parliament and these were adopted on 12 July, paving the way for the registration.

The most significant change in the amendments is the transfer of responsibility for registration from the government to the State Service for the Affairs of Cults. Some have expressed initial concern at the move, believing it increases the power of the state service. "The procedure for registering churches becomes much simpler," Valeriu Ghiletchi, head of the Baptist Union, told Keston from Chisinau on 22 July. "At the same time it could become more bureaucratic than it is used to be. Article 14 gives more power to the state service for the affairs of cults than it had before, which could be abused. This is the only concern I see, so far. When it comes to the implementation of this law we will see how it works."

Metropolitan Vladimir (Cantareanu), head of the Orthodox Church under Moscow, complained vigorously about the amendments, claiming on 24 July that "adopting amendments that envisage making it easier to register religions will substantially increase the risk of totalitarian sects penetrating Moldova". He believed "amendments to the law will diminish rather than strengthen the Orthodox faith".

The Bessarabian Orthodox Church claims 75 priests and 68 parishes in Moldova. Most parishes do not have a proper church, Fr Restesanu declared, having to make do with temporary chapels or having to meet in private homes.

Under the December 2001 ECHR ruling, the government was instructed to pay the Bessarabian Church compensation 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". Fr Restesanu says his Church has not yet decided how it will use the money. "We will probably use it to help to build new churches - many of these are now being built."

The Bessarabian Church also had one parish in a Romanian-speaking village across the border in Ukraine's Odessa region. However, the Ukrainian authorities expelled the priest, barred him from re-entry for five years and handed the parish over to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (see KNS 12 May 2000). "We built the church, but they drove out our priest," Fr Restesanu complained. (END)