Issue 5, Article 16, 12 May 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Friday 12 May 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A priest of the Bessarabian jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in Moldova
was arrested, held for three days and expelled from Ukraine after revisiting his
native village of Dolinske (in the Reni district of Odessa region of Ukraine) in
March to pray at the grave of his mother. Father NICOLAE ASARGIU, a
Moldovan citizen although born in the village, had been expelled from Ukraine
in 1998 and a five year ban on re-entering the country had been imposed by the
Ukrainian authorities for his alleged violations of the Ukrainian law on
religion. The religious affairs chief for the Odessa region told Keston News
Service that Father Asargiu had `crudely violated the law by entering the
country clandestinely' and that he had been treated exactly as any other foreign
citizen who violated the law would have been.

VLAD CUBREACOV, a deputy in the Moldovan parliament and active
supporter of the Bessarabian Church, told Keston by telephone from Chisinau
on 10 May that Father Asargiu had travelled across the border into Ukraine
after the death of his mother (his father, who is in his eighties, and his sister
still live in Dolinske). He was arrested at the village graveyard in the last days
of March by the Reni district police. He was freed in the evening of 3 April
after being held for three days, left Ukraine and had to seek hospital treatment
in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. `Father Asargiu declared a hunger strike
after he was arrested, and was freed after the intervention of the Moldovan and
Romanian governments,' Cubreacov told Keston. `On reaching Chisinau he
spent several days recovering in hospital before being let out.'

The Department for Relations with Romanians Abroad, a Romanian
government body, described Father Asargiu's detention as `unacceptable abuse'
which contravened Ukraine's laws and its international human rights
obligations. The Romanian government asked the Ukrainian embassy to
explain its actions against Father Asargiu.

In the absence on holiday of IVAN BUTSENKO, the chairman of the
administration of Reni district, Keston spoke by telephone to his deputy
GALINA SOKOLOVA on 11 May. However, she declined to discuss Father
Asargiu's case by telephone. `I don't discuss such questions by telephone, but
only in a meeting in person,' she told Keston. `It is not a question for two
minutes. One could discuss it for hours.' Pressed again to give the Ukrainian
authorities' view of Father Asargiu's case, she declared: `This is official
information. I don't have the right to discuss state information with just anyone.
I don't know who you are. As the person in the administration I answer for this
in the interests of the state.'

In a telephone interview on 11 May, VIKTOR BONDARENKO, the chairman
of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, told Keston from Kiev that he
had no information on Father Asargiu's case. Asked whether there was any ban
on Bessarabian priests working in Ukraine he declared: `There is no ban on
priests of the Bessarabian jurisdiction serving in Ukraine. There is a ban on
those who break the law.' He referred all enquiries to the local representation of
his State Committee in Odessa.

After initially declaring that he had `no comment', the religious affairs chief for
the Odessa region YURI ALEKSANDROVICH (who declined to give his
surname) told Keston by telephone on 11 May that Father Asargiu had `crudely
violated' Ukrainian law by returning to Ukraine. He sounded annoyed that
Father Asargiu's case had aroused protests not only from Moldova (of which
Father Asargiu is a citizen), but from Romania. `The government of Ukraine
does not understand why a third country got involved,' the official declared.
`The church in Dolinske was registered as a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It
always has been.' Asked which jurisdiction the parishioners of the Dolinske
Orthodox church would like to belong to, the official responded: `It is difficult
for me to say. I have never been to Dolinske.' Asked which articles of which
laws Father Asargiu had violated to merit expulsion in 1998, the official
responded: `He violated many articles. I cannot say now concretely which

The official was not as neutral towards the Bessarabian jurisdiction of the
Orthodox Church as Bondarenko. `The Bessarabian Metropolitanate does not
exist,' he declared bluntly. `The Orthodox world does not recognise it as a
canonical jurisdiction. It is a self-named entity. I don't think the religious
leadership in Ukraine would allow it to beregistered.' Asked whether this was
his view as a state official or an Orthodox Christian, he responded: `There is
equality of religions in Ukraine, but the Bessarabian Metropolitanate does not
exist.' He reported that the Bessarabian jurisdiction has no congregations in
Ukraine. Asked whether in theory a Bessarabian congregation could receive
registration, he conceded that they could apply for it, though he repeated that
they do not exist.

According to Bessarabian Church sources in Moldova, in the mid-1990s Father
Asargiu was invited by the local Orthodox community to serve in the village of
Dolinske (which is mainly Moldovan/Romanian speaking). He was named
parish priest in 1996 by the head of the Bessarabian jurisdiction of the
Orthodox Church, Metropolitan PETRU PADURARU of Bessarabia, who is
subject to the Romanian Patriarchate. Father Asargiu also served the
neighbouring village of Frectei. Because they adhered to the Bessarabian
jurisdiction, Father Asargiu and his family were put under pressure from the
local authorities and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (under the Moscow
Patriarchate), which forced the parish to accept transfer to the jurisdiction of its
Diocese of Odessa. Bessarabian Church sources claim that after refusing to
accept the transfer, Father Asargiu was expelled from Dolinske `abusively' by
the local police in July 1998 and was given a five-year ban on entering
Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities cited his alleged violation of Article 24 of
the law on religion, which restricts foreign religious workers who come to
Ukraine at the invitation of a religious community to serving only in the
territory specifically named on the application.

Father Asargiu reportedly filed a suit in court against the decision forty days
later, but the case has merely been sent back and forth between the local court
and Odessa, without any hearing. He also wrote letters of protest to local
government officials and even to Ukrainian president LEONID KUCHMA.

Cubreacov, as a Moldovan parliamentary deputy, asked the Moldovan Foreign
Ministry to intervene with its Ukrainian counterpart over the expulsion and
five-year ban. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry wrote to Cubreacov on 12
March 1999 claiming that Father Asargiu had been banned from Ukraine for
`crudely violating' the law on religion. `This did not accord with reality,'
Cubreacov told Keston. `It was just an excuse.'

`The Ukrainian law on religion is very liberal,' Cubreacov told Keston, `and
allows religious groups to have links with any foreign religious groups. I can
only conclude that they disliked a priest with links to the Romanian Orthodox
Church. This is strange as there are various Orthodox Churches in Ukraine - the
Autocephalous Churches, the Church with links to Moscow, the Russian Free
Church and so on - this is quite normal. Father Asargiu had never officially had
complaints about his presence.'

Since his expulsion from Ukraine, Father Asargiu has served in a Ukrainian-
speaking village in the Balti region of Moldova. Meanwhile, Dolinske (known
in Romanian as Anadol) has a priest named by the Ukrainian Orthodox
Church's Odessa diocese. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.