4 December 2023Moldova

Who is in charge of the Church?

What is going on with the Moldovan Orthodox Church

by Alina Mikhalkina
The relations between the Orthodox Churches of Moldova and Russia are not so serene as it may appear
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow awarded the order of St Seraphim of Sarov to Metropolitan Vladimir of Chişinău. October 13, 2022
© Oleg Varov / DECR Communication Service

Within the Orthodox Church of Moldova, an autonomous church under the Moscow Patriarchate, there are growing calls to move out of Moscow's sphere of influence. The cause of the emerging divide is the war of Russia against Ukraine. The new religious reality in Moldova has been analysed by NewsMaker journalist Alina Mikhalkina.

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When the Russian incursion into Ukraine began, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which before the war was a self-governing church within the Moscow Patriarchate, essentially became an undesirable organisation in Ukraine.

The UOC’s influence is waning. Individual priests and whole parishes are moving from the UOC to the state-supported autocephalous [self-governing] Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU – founded in 2018 and regarded as schismatic by the Russian Orthodox Church). This is taking place despite the fact that in March 2022 the UOC condemned the Russian invasion and declared full independence from Moscow.

In Ukraine's neighbour, Moldova, which is not directly affected by the hostilities, the war provoked similar processes. Priests of the Orthodox Church of Moldova (OCM), a self-governing metropolis under the Russian Orthodox Church, are increasingly demanding that it is time to break off relations with Moscow. According to them, it is time to move to the West, to the fold of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The Revelation of Vladimir

The Orthodox Church of Moldova is the largest religious organisation in the Republic of Moldova. It contains over a thousand parishes and almost fifty monasteries. The MOC is not an autocephalous Church and is canonically subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Metropolitan Vladimir of Chişinău and all Moldova is a member of the Synod of the ROC and regularly travels to Moscow.

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 the Metropolis of Moldova, on the one hand, began helping Ukrainian refugees fleeing into Moldova and on the other hand, it limited its reaction to the war to short press releases featuring prayers for peace. Metropolitan Vladimir meanwhile, since the beginning of the war, participated in two sessions of the Synod of the ROC in Moscow and in October 2022 he received from the hands of Patriarch Kirill [Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia] the order of St Seraphim of Sarov, one of the highest awards of the ROC.

At that time Vladimir also officiated the Divine Liturgy in the Holy Trinity – St Sergius Monastery in Sergiev Posad, Moscow Region, and the media reported that during the service the Metropolitan urged the faithful to pray for Vladimir Putin’s health. The press service of the MOC later denied the ‘prayer for Putin.’

“I’ve never prayed for Putin! I’m telling you this honestly, here, with the Theotokos [icon of the Mother of God] on my chest,” Metropolitan Vladimir told Deutsche Welle in January 2023.

Nevertheless, the OCM never condemned the war officially. While the Moldovan secular authorities have made a number of antiwar statements and continue to do so, the OCM called on everyone to pray for peace without specifying who is fighting whom. In autumn of 2023 it became clear that in ecclesiastical relations between Chişinău and Moscow not everything was going smoothly, to say the least.

On October 20, 2023, thanks to the former parliamentary deputy Vlad Cubreacov, a letter from Metropolitan Vladimir of Chişinău and all Moldova to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia went viral on social networks and was widely spread by the media. The letter, dated September 5, appears to be of a sensational character. In his letter Vladimir not only indicates to Kirill the problems the Moldovan Church is experiencing because of its affiliation with the ROC, but also condemns the actions of the Russian government towards Ukraine.

First, writes the Metropolitan, the affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate undermines the image of the OCM in Moldovan society. He refers to the data of sociological research according to which people’s trust in the Church decreased from 62.5% in 2022 to 58% in 2023.

“This is a direct result of our connection as a Church structure with the promotion of pro-Russian interests in the Republic of Moldova. This, in turn, is due to the fact that the Metropolis belongs to the Moscow Patriarchate, which is perceived in Moldovan society as an outpost of the Kremlin and a champion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For the Orthodox Church of Moldova, such a connection is tantamount to our disappearance from the religious and social scene of the country due to the persistent rejection by our fellow citizens of Russia’s aggressive interference in the affairs of both the neighboring and friendly state of Ukraine and our own,” wrote Metropolitan Vladimir to Patriarch Kirill.

Metropolitan Vladimir also accused the ROC of failing to deliver on promised financial support to the OCM for such things as compensation for gas bills which, according to the Metropolitan, “have increased significantly, as a consequence of the war unleashed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” Moreover, Metropolitan Vladimir points out, “In Russia, both secular and church authorities treated and treat us as a peripheral and spineless people, deprived of the right to accept those decisions that he considers necessary for his well-being and prosperity.”

Finally, Metropolitan Vladimir writes to Patriarch Kirill – essentially, to his boss – that the expansion of the Romanian Orthodox Church into the Moldovan territory cannot be stopped and that the Orthodox Church of Moldova will inevitably find itself on the periphery.

In his letter, the Moldovan Metropolitan gives the following geopolitical forecast: “The fate of the Republic of Moldova has already been decided by the great powers – within a relatively short period of time it will definitely reunite with Romania and, naturally, everything the Orthodox Church of Moldova stands for will become part of the Romanian Orthodox Church. <...> The Metropolis of Chişinău and Moldova has absolutely no leverage to stop these processes. In the current situation, any of our steps aimed at intervention will be opposed (not only by our civil society but first and foremost by our clergy and faithful) and considered to be subversive and highly unpopular because no one can resist historical facts and, therefore, delaying these processes only prolongs the agony of those who want to stop them.”

Nothing of the kind has happened in the entire history of ecclesiastical relations between Chişinău and Moscow since 1992 when the OCM was granted the status of a self-governing metropolis by decision of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, the OCM has officially confirmed the authenticity of the harsh message from Metropolitan Vladimir to Patriarch Kirill. Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev, defrocked by the ROC, in an interview with Agentstvo publication referred to Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter as “another and very serious rift” within the “Russian World.”

The Church Front

Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter provoked a response from the Moldovan clergy who have previously spoken against the Church’s subordination to the ROC. In early October 2023, Veaceslav Cazacu, vice-rector of the Chişinău Theological Academy, announced his decision to move to the Metropolis of Bessarabia [an autonomous Eastern Orthodox Metropolitan bishopric of the Romanian Orthodox Church]. Five more priests supported this decision.

As a result, on November 14 Veaceslav Cazacu and his supporters, who also moved to be under the jurisdiction of the Romanian Patriarchate, were suspended from all duties in public ministry and a new vice-rector was appointed to the Chişinău Theological Academy. However, in November alone, a total of thirteen parishes decided to switch allegiance to the Romanian Orthodox Church.

This conflict, showing obvious signs of a schism, is taking place in the public sphere. Pavel Borșevschi, Rector of St Demetrius’ church in Chişinău, called on the Metropolis of Moldova to withdraw from being under the jurisdiction of the ROC and to become part of the Romanian Patriarchate. Dean Borșevschi was supported by a majority of priests in his district because he is responsible for the parishes of [Chișinău’s most populous] Sectorul Botanica as well as some suburban areas of the Moldovan capital.

“After Russia invaded Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill ceased to be a spiritual father of the Church and has turned himself into a political figure who hypocritically calls for fraternal blood to be spilled, which contradicts everything that the Orthodox Church teaches us,” said Borșevschi. He suggested to Metropolitan Vladimir the following plan of action: the Metropolis of Moldova in its entirety should move under the direct jurisdiction of the Romanian Patriarchate and not that of the Metropolis of Bessarabia.

The Revelation of Vladimir

It is a somewhat commonly held view in Romania that the historical region of Bessarabia, which includes not only the present-day territory of Moldova but also a part of the Odessa Region of Ukraine is, in fact, native Romanian land. The Metropolis of Bessarabia was created, or rather re-created, on December 24, 1992 by decision of the Synod of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The Metropolis had previously existed from 1918 to 1940 and from 1941 to 1944 when these lands were part of Romania.

The Moscow Patriarchate strongly disagreed with this decision and labelled it an “invasion of our canonical boundaries.” The relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church have been strained ever since.

In Moldova the attitude towards Romanian ecclesiastical expansion has varied during different periods. From 2001 to 2009, when the country was under the rule of the Moldovan Communists led by President Vladimir Voronin, the authorities actively resisted the influence of the Romanian Orthodox Church and frequently came into conflict with Bucharest.

The relationship between the metropolitans of the two patriarchates in the territory of Moldova has also been strained because of the migration of OCM priests to the Metropolis of Bessarabia and because of the renovation of landmark churches, the rights to which have been contested by the two rival ecclesiastical authorities.

For instance, when in October 2007 the Romanian Orthodox Church decided to create, in the territory of Moldova, three dioceses of the Metropolis of Bessarabia, the Metropolis of Moldova loudly protested about the matter and subjected the Romanian Orthodox Church to robust criticism.

The decision of the Romanian Patriarchate was seen as “a direct and aggressive invasion of another ecclesiastical authority’s canonical territory.” “We consider this step as a blow to Orthodoxy, one and indivisible, a bulwark of stability united by one faith and one canonical rule,” said the declaration of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Moldova.

Today the situation is different. The present-day Moldovan government is oriented towards the European Union. Fully supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia, it has close and friendly relations with neighbouring Romania. The Moldovan authorities do not interfere with the Metropolis of Bessarabia. On the contrary, they are helping it in the process of restitution concerning property which was lost after the territory of Moldova ceased to be a part of Romania.

Romania, in its turn, decided at the state level to provide additional financial support to the Metropolis of Bessarabia. It is worth noting that this decision was made after the publication of Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter to Patriarch Kirill in which the Metropolitan of Chişinău and all Moldova lamented the lack of financial support from the ROC. The Romanian state, wrote Vladimir in his letter, “offers full provision of priests with monthly salaries of €800 – €900, health insurance, pensions and the exemption of parishes from quarterly contributions.”

Still with Moscow

The Orthodox Church of Moldova, judging by Metropolitan Vladimir’s remarkable letter, is unable to resist the increasing influence of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Moldova but it does not yet intend to break off relations with Moscow. On November 16, 2023 in Chişinău, a meeting of rectors and abbots took place. It was decided at the meeting that the OCM should preserve its current status:

“The clergy and the people remain faithful to the Orthodox Church of Moldova and Metropolitan Vladimir. The question of the Orthodox Church of Moldova’s accession to the Romanian Patriarchate will not be discussed,” said Ioan Moșneguțu, Bishop of Soroca.

However, advocates of the move to the Romanian Orthodox Church comment on the discussion among the Moldovan clergy in quite a different way. Pavel Borșevschi, Rector of St Demetrius’ church in Chişinău, following a meeting with Metropolitan Vladimir and Church hierarchs, said that the question of accession to the Romanian Patriarchate remains open:

“Based on the discussion and at the urging of His Eminence [Metropolitan Vladimir] a unanimous decision was made to preserve the Unity of the Orthodox Church of Moldova. The question of accession to the Romanian Patriarchate remained open,” wrote Borșevschi on his Facebook page.

A third version of the events was given by Marchel, Bishop of Bălți and Făleşti, who is often referred to as an advocate of pro-Russian views in the Metropolis of Moldova. He rushed to condemn the priests who are moving to the Metropolis of Bessarabia and called them “ordinary parishioners or non-believers.’

Moldovan media, following on from the meeting of rectors and abbots, reported that most of the hierarchs are not prepared to break off relations with the Moscow Patriarchate. It has also been revealed that most of those willing to move to the Romanian Patriarchate reside in the country’s capital, whereas in the regions of Moldova the prospect of accession to the Romanian Church is not well accepted.

Nevertheless, the fact that the issue of re-subordination of the Church, of its move from Moscow to Bucharest, is being discussed at a high level of the Church’s hierarchy and is being discussed openly in the public sphere as well as in the media, points to serious problems both inside the Orthodox Church of Moldova and to its relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church.

It can be assumed that the migration of priests, parishes and, therefore, parishioners from the OCM to the Metropolis of Bessarabia will continue. This migration, together with discussions inside the OCM on whom to look up to, is in itself not favourable to Moscow. It serves to prove that, along with Russia’s political influence, the influence of the Russian Church in Moldova is waning away.

Translated from Russian by Alexander Stoliarchuk