Monday 7 February 2000
MOLDOVAN AUTHORITIES CONTINUE TO REFUSE RECOGNITION
TO BESSARABIAN CHURCH

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

On 2 February, just as the Moldovan government was filing its response to the
European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over its refusal to grant official
recognition to the Bessarabian Metropolitanate of the Orthodox Church, the
cabinet reiterated its refusal to register the Church. The European Court of
Human Rights (ECHR) is now awaiting a formal response from the applicant
in the case against the Moldovan government which the lawyer for the
Bessarabian side says `we will win hands down'. However, a leading Moldovan
government official involved in the case insisted to Keston News Service that
his government will win, and added that even if the ECHR rules against the
government it will still not register the Bessarabian Metropolitanate (although
this would jeopardise Moldova's standing in the Council of Europe).

Exasperated by persistent refusals by the Moldovan authorities to register the
Church and having failed to gain satisfaction in the Moldovan courts, the
Bessarabian Metropolitanate - which owes allegiance to the Romanian
Orthodox Church - filed its case at the ECHR on 3 June 1998. The case was
registered on 26 January 1999 and the court accepted the admissibility of the
case (`The Bessarabian Metropolitanate and the Exarchate of the Country and
12 Others v. the Government of Moldova', No. 45701/99). On 10 November
1999 the court detailed a list of questions for the Moldovan government to
answer by 2 February 2000. VITALIE NAGACEVSCHI of the Moldovan
Ministry of Justice, the `government's agent' to the court, confirmed to Keston
News Service in a telephone interview from Chisinau on 3 February that the
government had filed its response `in the evening of 2 February ahead of the
deadline'.

The Bessarabian Metropolitanate is being represented at the ECHR by
Professor JOHN WARWICK MONTGOMERY, a barrister in practice in
London and a senior counsel for the Strasbourg-based European Centre for
Law and Justice. `The Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate engaged the European
Centre and they engaged me to represent the Bessarabian Church at the court,'
Professor Montgomery told Keston in a telephone interview on 3 February.
`The Centre is willing on a pro bono basis to sponsor religious liberty cases in
the European Court of Human Rights. This is in effect the only vehicle in
Europe to have religious liberty cases taken up at no cost to the applicant.' He
stressed that the Centre is willing to take up other similar religious liberty cases
in countries subject to the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The Bessarabian Metropolitanate had argued in its petition to the ECHR that in
refusing to register the group the government had violated various articles of
the European Convention, including Article 9 covering freedom of religion,
Article 14 outlawing discrimination based on religion, Article 6 on free access
to justice, Article 11 on freedom of association and Article 13 on failure to
respect the right to effective legal recourse.

The government's response rejected all the Bessarabian Metropolitanate's
claims that it had violated the European Convention, to which Moldova is a
party as a member of the Council of Europe. Challenging the Bessarabian
Metropolitanate's accusations, the government claimed - on the narrowest of
technical grounds - that the Metropolitanate had not in fact exhausted all the
legal avenues at its disposal in Moldova, as required by the ECHR before
bringing a case, despite the numerous court hearings up to and including the
Moldovan Supreme Court. The government also rejected a number of the
Metropolitanate's specific allegations of the violations of its rights as `without
foundation'. In particular, the Metropolitanate claimed that its rights under
Article 14 of the Convention to enjoy all rights and freedoms without
discrimination as to religion had been violated. `The Bessarabian
Metropolitanate alleges that in the exercise of its rights flowing from the
freedom to manifest one's religion and to carry out rites it had been the object
of the fact of the absence of juridical protection and of discrimination based on
religion.' But, the government asserted, this accusation was `without
foundation'. The government maintained that although the Metropolitanate did
not have `juridical personality', as an association of persons with a common
interest it was eligible to protect its interests in court and therefore had judicial
protection.

`The motive of the national authorities in refusing to recognise the Bessarabian
Metropolitanate,' the government's response to the court declared, `is that this
Church does not represent a new cult, given that the Orthodox cult is already
recognised. The matter concerns in essence an ecclesiastical conflict which
should be resolved by ecclesiastical bodies in order to avoid certain negative
consequences (such as for example the cases of intimidation described in the
petition).'

The Metropolitanate had also complained that the government's recognition of
the Moldovan Orthodox Church (under the Moscow Patriarchate) and the
Russian Orthodox Church of Moldova (the Old Believers) while failing to
recognise the Metropolitanate was `without serious justification'. The
government denied that its recognition of the Chisinau diocese of the Old
Believer Orthodox Church attached to the Russian Old Believer Church
represented a precedent. `The recognition of this diocese is explained by the
fact that it is distinct from the Moldovan Orthodox Church. The distinction
rests in the method of practising the religion, as well as its composition (the
believers and the clergy of this church are exclusively of Russian stock).'

The government also refused to consider incidents of harassment of members
of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate. It declined to consider incidents alleged to
have taken place before the European Convention became legally binding in
Moldova in September 1997. As to the alleged incidents of harassment since
then it claimed that five had never been reported to the police, a sixth had been
perpetrated by an individual, not a law enforcement officer and a seventh was
investigated but not pursued.

In his interview with Keston, Professor Montgomery refuted the claims in the
Moldovan government's 2 February response that the Bessarabian
Metropolitanate had not yet exhausted domestic legal remedies. `The Supreme
Court heard the case and refused to accept the Church's case,' Professor
Montgomery declared. `As far as we know they have exhausted the legal
process in Moldova.'

Professor Montgomery is optimistic about his clients' case. `We will win hands
down. The Moldovan government is clearly violating the European Convention
on Human Rights insofar as it is refusing to recognise a legitimate church
organisation and to permit it to choose its own leadership and international
connections,' he told Keston. `There are clear social and legal disadvantages of
a powerful nature as a result of the non-registration of a church. The evil of
registration is that it allows a government to make a decision on what a
religious organisation or church is - and that is no business of a government.'

Asked by Keston why the Bessarabian Metropolitanate had not been registered,
Nagacevschi of the Ministry of Justice in Chisinau was less than sure. `Why
not? It's a difficult question. It's a political question - the Metropolitanate is
subject to Bucharest, this is the problem. It is difficult for me to explain.' He
then referred enquiries to VLAD CUBREACOV, a former staff member of the
Soviet-era Council for Religious Affairs who is now a parliamentary deputy
and who has been mandated by the Bessarabian Metropolitanate as its
representative to the ECHR. `I can't give my own view,' Nagacevschi added, `I
have one but I can't say it. My view has to coincide with the view of the
government because I work for it. I don't decide whether a church should be
registered or not.'

Keston then spoke by telephone to GHEORGHE ARMASU, the chairman of
the State Service for the Affairs of Cults, asking him the same question. `Under
a government decision of 17 November 1993 the Orthodox faith was
recognised. The Bessarabian Metropolitanate is not an individual cult but part
of a cult. It would represent state interference in the affairs of the Church if we
registered the Bessarabian Metropolitanate separately. We don't want this.' He
then maintained that because of the 1993 decision the Bessarabian
Metropolitanate was indeed registered `because it is part of the Orthodox
Church', adding: `Canonically and administratively it belongs to the Moldovan
Orthodox Church.' Claiming that the Metropolitanate has only some 30
parishes, compared to `thousands' loyal to the Moldovan Orthodox Church, he
did not appear inclined to state categorically whether these 30 or so parishes
were registered or not. Confusingly, after initially saying they were not
registered, he then said that as they had been registered before 1991 they did
have registration. `The local churches have juridical status as part of the
Moldovan Orthodox Church.' Despite repeated questioning, he avoided
answering clearly.

Armasu's rejection of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate's right to obtain
registration was echoed by ION RABACU, a chief counsellor in the
government and an official of the Directorate for Social Affairs, which
oversees the State Service for the Affairs of Cults. In a telephone interview on
4 February, Rabacu was dismissive of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate. `It's
not a Metropolitanate,' he told Keston, `it's just a few people who were expelled
from the Moldovan Orthodox Church who then decided to found their own
Metropolitanate.' Asked why they could not achieve registration, Rabacu
claimed that Moldova was `canonically' the territory of the Moldovan
Orthodox Church and that the state `does not need' a second Orthodox Church
in the country. Asked why a second Orthodox Church could not be registered,
he responded that this was an internal church question. He said that if the
government were to register the Bessarabian Metropolitanate `there would be
war from the other side'. Rabacu pointed to the inter-Orthodox meeting held in
Chisinau in January 1999 with the participation of the Romanian Orthodox
Church and the Moscow Patriarchate which aimed at finding a solution to the
dispute. `The meeting agreed not to take any decisions until a consensus was
reached. The Bessarabian Metropolitanate violated this by demanding that they
should be registered.'

Rabacu expressed confidence that the ECHR would rule in favour of the
Moldovan government. `The government does not fear losing the case. This is
not a case for the European Court of Human Rights. They will send people to
Moldova and they will find out the real situation: that no-one is persecuted and
that the Bessarabian Metropolitanate is just fighting for property.' Asked
whether the government would register the Bessarabian Metropolitanate if the
group did win the case, he responded categorically: `No, it will not register it.
But I don't think it will get to that point.'

Following Moldovan independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the
Orthodox Church in Moldova split between those advocating the retention of
the ties to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church and those
advocating the restoration of the subordination to the Romanian Patriarchate in
Bucharest. Successive Moldovan governments have backed the Moldovan
Orthodox Church subordinate to Moscow, which is led by Metropolitan
VLADIMIR (CANTARIAN) of Chisinau and Moldova, and have refused to
register the Bessarabian jurisdiction under Bucharest, which is led by
Metropolitan PETRU (PADURARU) of Bessarabia, a former bishop of the
Russian Orthodox Church who joined the Romanian jurisdiction in 1992. The
Bessarabian Metropolitanate sees itself as the legal and canonical successor to
the pre-Second World War Romanian Orthodox Church in Bessarabia (the part
of Moldova between the Nistru and Prut rivers).

The government denied recognition to the Bessarabian Church in October
1992, March 1996, August 1996 and March 1997. In 1997 the Supreme Court
overturned an appeals court decision affirming the right of the Bessarabian
Church to be registered. However, the Supreme Court's decision was based on
a procedural issue rather than the merits of the case. Moldova's accession to the
Council of Europe in July 1995 allowed the Bessarabian Metropolitanate to
pursue its complaint in the ECHR. However, the Moldovan government's
continuing refusal to register the Church - evidenced both in its response to the
ECHR and in the remarks of government officials - seems as unwavering as
ever. (END)


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