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In Church we trust. The case of the Moldovan Orthodox Church

The relationship between religion and society differs in most post-Soviet states. While the Orthodox Church in Moldova clearly enjoys widespread popularity in the country, it has chosen to focus on promoting a “traditional agenda”, often associated with discrimination towards women and minorities.

The Ukrainian Church’s official independence last year raised issues regarding how religion impacts geopolitics in post-Soviet countries. Despite this, the country’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, was neither the first nor the last political leader to use religious sentiments as part of an electoral campaign. The current Moldovan President, Igor Dodon, did so during the country’s previous elections. While there are numerous studies analysing the role of the church in politics and social movements, this discussion investigates the church’s role regarding conflict mitigation or instigation. By examining situations prone to conflict, we can try to determine whether the Orthodox Church in Moldova (OCM) serves the purpose of uniting the people or fostering polarisation. Such an issue remain of great importance for a country where more than 90 per cent of the population declare themselves Orthodox.

September 7, 2020 - Anastasia Pociumban - AnalysisIssue 5 2020Magazine

The Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chișinău, Moldova. Photo: Andrez1 (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Several questions need answering in order to create a fuller picture of the church’s standing in Moldovan society. What is the relationship between the different churches in Moldova? What is the church’s role in politics? Does it have a position on LGBTQ+, and on religious and ethnic minorities? What is the position of the church on the spread of disinformation and fake news? How has the church addressed the COVID-19 pandemic?

Relationships between different churches in Moldova

In Moldova the church enjoys a high level of public trust, with 70 per cent of the population stating they have confidence in the organisation. In contrast, the second most trusted institutions are city halls, which only has a 38 per cent public trust rating. Mass media scores 32 per cent, while parliament comes in last with 11 per cent. At the same time, according to the same barometer, slightly more than 52 per cent of Moldovans feel that none of the political parties represent them.

As stated above, 91.4 per cent identify themselves as members of the Orthodox Church of Moldova (OCM, a self-governing body under the Russian Patriarchate). Furthermore, 3.7 per cent are members of the local Bessarabian section of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Only 1.9 per cent declared themselves as atheist or non-religious. In this context, the church, in particularly the OCM, plays a visible role in people’s lives and has considerable ability to frame and influence political narratives and popular beliefs.

The Bessarabian priests accuse the state of favouring the OCM and are trying to reclaim certain territories through the European Court of Human Rights. However with the exception of occasional altercations, the OCM and the Bessarabian Church – being both Orthodox – peacefully co-exist with little interaction between each other. While these two churches have no visible conflict, issues arise when we look at other religions. Moldovan legislation continues to privilege Orthodoxy and has even forced the Muslim minority to remain registered as a non-governmental organisation. This is despite the creation of a more simplified process of religious registration in 2016, and consistent attempts by the community to take advantage of these changes.

Other issues that religious minorities face from state bodies relate to property, building permits and general discrimination. There are data confirming that Orthodox priests can de facto veto and influence the spaces used by minority religious groups (for example, cemeteries and burial places). There are even examples of people destroying menorahs, being led by OCM priests. None of the cases were taken to court, and the OCM did not apologise on behalf of the priests nor make any statements calling for respect to be shown to other religious groups. Furthermore, many state schools have Orthodox religious objects on display and often only Orthodox priests are invited to conduct religious education.

Despite the constitution of Moldova guaranteeing the right to religious freedom and forbidding any discrimination on religious grounds, in reality the Moldovan Orthodox Church enjoys a more favourable position than other group when it comes to religious registration, education, and practice. Moreover, there is no condemnation from the OCM regarding hate speech and religious discrimination performed by its followers. It seems, then, that the Moldovan Orthodox Church only contributes to conflict between people of various religious faiths within the country.

Relations with the LGBTQ+ community

The Moldovan Orthodox Church openly discriminates against sexual minorities, particularly LGBTQ+ groups. In May the OCM wrote a letter to the government asking to ban any demonstrations conducted in support of LGBTQ+ rights. Church representatives say these kinds of events “affect moral principles, rights and liberties of other people”. The week prior, in Chișinău, a march was held in support of sexual minority rights. The OCM arranged a “Family March” counter-protest, which was organised by the church to combat alleged “homosexual propaganda”. In previous years, marches supporting LGBTQ+ rights resulted in violence, which to a large degree was instigated by Orthodox followers and priests.

The church’s message is clear and its official position is that the LGBTQ+ community has no place in Moldova. Moldovan President, Igor Dodon, a strong supporter of the OCM, has also publicly declared his support for the “traditional family”, stating that he will not allow the “infiltration of foreign values in Moldovan society”. Due to this rhetoric, it comes as no surprise that church leaders supported him during the 2016 presidential campaign. Any open support of the LGBTQ+ community by priests is publicly condemned and punished by the church. For example, Maxim Melinti – a priest in Ghidici, a village not far from Chișinău – received an award last year from a pro-LGBTQ+ organisation, called Genderdoc-M, for his work with the community. As a result, the church suspended him from his role and banned him from officiating services. He was forced to apologise in front of the church, as well as refuse his award. This case presents an example where the church could have played the role of mediator, or indeed supporter, of sexual minorities. Dodon’s statement in 2018 where he “never promised to be the president of gays” appears to complement the church’s own feelings.

Social divisions

In 2018 Moldova hosted the World Congress of Families (WCF), an event which was opened and led by President Dodon. During the occasion, the Moldovan leader made clear his devotion to traditional religion, stating that due to “Being the Leader of the country, in which for many centuries Christianity played a key part, I tend to support all initiatives related to the unification of society and its return to true values, written in the Bible.” The congress, which took place a few months before the elections, was criticised by Moldovan civil society as a means of imposing church approved ideals upon the country and what constitutes a “normal family”. Other important topics discussed at the event included the banning of abortion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society (i.e. that they should stay at home and take care of the family).

In general, the WFC opposed everything which goes against its definition of “natural families”. This includes abortion, gay marriage, in-vitro fertilisation and divorce. The organisation is connected to extreme right-wing and conservative parties and is known to not only promote hatred against LGBTQ+ organisations and women’s rights but actively fight against them. In line with these traditional beliefs, many Orthodox Church representatives participated in the congress, displaying the church’s promotion of these ideas.  

Even though Moldova’s constitution does not include the church in decision-making processes, the OCM (subordinate to the Russian patriarchate) is no stranger to politics and has often used its power to promote strengthening relations with Moscow. Indeed, the church has directly accused the EU of promoting the “wrong” kind of values and has often appeared to act as an instrument of Russian influence within Moldova. “The voice of the church and the voice of Russian politicians — not all, but the overwhelming majority of Russian politicians — are the same. For me, Russia is the guardian of Christian values,” said the bishop from Balti, Moldova’s second largest city, in an interview with the New York Times. The bishop also added that the EU requests too much in return for financial support and encourages Moldovans to alienate themselves from God.

Another example of the church’s interference in politics is its campaign against Moldova’s anti-discrimination laws, which makes reference to unfair discrimination in workplaces based on sexual orientation. The church opposed the law’s terminology, which eventually caused it to be renamed the Law on Ensuring Equality, thereby removing active reference to discrimination. In 2012, when the law was discussed in parliament, the OCM’s official website republished a piece from a book called The reality to which we are striving by Valeriu Ionas. The article, which is titled “anti-discrimination law or the beginning of dehumanisation in Moldova”, argues that homosexuality is inhuman and that EU officials wrongly view the acceptance of such practices as “civilised”. Ionas’s work asserts that the EU is demanding that “sick people” be allowed to actively spread the “sickness of homosexuality”. The fact that the article is published on the OCM’s official website without any disclaimer illustrates the official position of the church. This is another example where the church engages in politics, thus creating an association between the EU and anti-Orthodox values.

The OCM’s website also regularly publishes news related to Putin, including articles named “Putin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize” or ones related to the Russian leader’s invitation to the Patriarch of Jerusalem to celebrate 1025 years of Russian Christianity. This news has no relation to Moldova. Exchanges of congratulatory messages on various occasions between the Moldovan Metropolitan and Putin are also regularly published. The church’s feelings on the EU (usually just generically called “Europe”) are often reflected in articles with titles such as “Russian Church is worried about legalisation of unisex ‘marriages’ and abortion” and “Increased secularisation in Europe or Sweden: legalisation of polygamy and abolishment of weddings has started”. Most news is re-published from the website ortodox.md or other Orthodox websites, especially those from Russia. It is not a surprise then that in May 2019, Metropolitan decorated Putin with a friendship award.

The official communication on the Orthodox Church of Moldova’s website tends to portray anti-Orthodox values as closely connected with the EU, political liberalism and western education. Women’s rights are also sometimes included in this list. For example, one article discussed how women’s demands to enter Mount Athos signals the end of the world, and that Greece is under pressure from international organisations, especially the European Parliament, to allow this. Meanwhile, Russia tends to be associated with Orthodoxy and the protector of traditional family values. Current support for potential membership of both the EU and Eurasian Economic Union is slightly more than 30 per cent. The church’s role in shaping public perceptions of Russia and the EU is another example of how it contributes to divisions in society with regards to the country’s geopolitical development.

Fake news

Another issue is whether the church contributes to the spread of fake news and disinformation, or if it tries to combat it. Ion Andronache, a former student of Moldova’s theological institute, created a YouTube channel describing how he sees the role of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world. In one of his videos from March 2019, he discussed fake news and presented examples where priests share articles that are often produced or influenced by electoral campaigns. Examples include claims that presidential candidate Maia Sandu would bring 30,000 refugees into Moldova, as a promise to Angela Merkel. Another popular piece of fake news shared by priests involved allegations that Maia Sandu, the current leader of the Party of Action and Solidarity and former Moldovan prime minister, is a homosexual. Fake pictures spread supposedly showing her kissing another woman on the streets of Munich. Other articles shared by priests included stories claiming that a mosque will be built in the centre of Chișinău.

Some priests, led by Bishop Marchel of Balti and Falesti of the OCM, even organised a press conference ahead of the 2016 presidential election, where they stated that people “have to choose between two candidates – a Christian and a non-Christian, a patriot and non-patriot”. They called Igor Dodon a Christian patriot because “it is normal to have an attitude in favour of the church”. At the same time, it was claimed that Maia Sandu’s attitude is “not normal” and that Orthodox people should not vote for her.

The Diocese of Tiraspol-Dubasari is part of the Moldovan Orthodox Church. It is connected to the OCM, but it is also in direct contact with the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Federation. Priests in Transdniestria agree to follow the OCM as long as it follows Russia. The church’s website actively promotes its connections with Russia and includes a news feed integrated with the website, Christianity.ru. Therefore, the understanding in Transdniestria is that the OCM is, before all else, part of Russian Christianity and that minorities, including Orthodox ones, are negative influences. For example, the Bessarabian Church is simply regarded as an occupant. From this we can see that the OCM, and the church in Transdniestria, have found a way to co-exist, with an understanding that the Russian Patriarchate rules over them both.

Coronavirus and the church

Many of the Moldova churches first disregarded the state of emergency introduced by the Moldovan government in mid-March and organised services to offer communion. According to the Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu on March 22nd, at least 375 churches had indoor services, using one shared spoon to offer communion. Afterwards, attendances decreased and some churches received fines for breaking the rules; however services have continued in villages and small towns. The Metropolis of Moldova said they do not approve of this, but will not take any measures to deter the priests.

The Moldovan president has sent mixed messages and has not actively participated in the debate over church services. On the one hand, he mentioned the importance of self-isolation and to respect the measures introduced by the government. On the other hand, he said that priests could visit worshipers at home during the Easter weekend. Asked whether the priests would be punished, Dodon replied: “It is unclear where the higher risk of infection is – in the church or in the supermarket.” Following the government’s rules, the churches were allowed to hold Easter masses without attendees and stream them online.

The church also asked the Moldovan government for financial support, since donations decreased during to the lockdown. However, the president said there was no public money for this and that the OCM should rather look for support from the private sector.  During the current crisis the OCM has not served as a role model in encouraging people to stay at home – and only later did they join efforts to combat the spread of the COVID-19 (indeed, some churches are still breaking the law by holding mass sermons).

Additionally, a text published at the end of May on the official website of the church, shared a number of conspiracy theories and fake news, including claims that a vaccine, financed by Bill Gates, is supposed to introduce microchips into human bodies that would then control them with 5G technology. Another paper published by the OCM criticised the church’s closings as disproportionate. It states that the church understands the risks of getting infected, but these risks shall be assumed for the “eternal life”. This type of official communication, in a time of crisis, is not only misleading and dangerous, it puts lives at risk.

The Orthodox Church of Moldova has demonstrated a tendency to foster polarisation in society, instigate conflict (especially towards the LGBTQ+ community, but also towards religious minorities) and involve itself in politics. This can be seen in the way it has portrayed the EU as spreading decadence and Russia as the protector of traditional values. There are no known cases where the OCM has promoted tolerance or unity in any social conflict in Moldova.

It would be interesting to see what the OCM could achieve as a societal mediator, rather than an instigator of conflict. In a country where so many people declare themselves Orthodox, the church could potentially act as a unifier of people around messages of tolerance, rather than division and discrimination.

This article is the outcome of a project within the 2018-2019 Democracy Study Centre training programme of the German-Polish-Ukrainian Society and European Ukrainian Youth Policy Center in Kyiv, supported by the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany. #CivilSocietyCooperation.

Anastasia Pociumban is an alumna of the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv.  Over the past six years she has been working on local governance, democratisation and civil society in the Eastern Partnership countries and the rule of law in the EU countries.

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