Moldova’s Orthodox churches quietly divided

Two Orthodox churches exist within the territory of the Republic of Moldova—one associated with the Russian Orthodox Church and the other with the Romanian Orthodox Church—but the Patriarchates of Moscow and of Bucharest are downplaying this conflict, writes Mihai-D. Grigore (Leibniz Institute for European History, Mainz, Germany) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (November). At a time when church conflict over Ukraine has been escalating between Constantinople and Moscow, this shows a difference of approach from one case to the other. The historical roots of the situation go back to the occupation of Romanian-speaking Bessarabia by the Russian Empire in 1812. The local dioceses then came under the Russian Orthodox Church. After the area reunited with Romania in 1918, the Russian Patriarch Tikhon gave Moldovans the choice between the Russian Church and the Romanian Church, and the latter was chosen. The area remained under the Romanian Church until WWII, when it was conquered by the Soviet Union and the local church became a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church.

When Moldova became independent in 1991, an autonomous Metropolis of Chișinău and All Moldova was established by the Russian Church. It currently has six dioceses and is reported to gather up to 85 percent of local Orthodox believers, according to a 2017 survey quoted by Grigore. However, in 1992 a bishop and clergymen in disagreement with the metropolitan organized and asked the Romanian Church to accept them, which it did, establishing its own Metropolis of Bessarabia, strongly associated with Romanian identity. It gathers less than 7 percent of local Orthodox believers, although some other figures give a higher number. It took a decade and legal struggles going up to the European Court of Human Rights for it to get official registration. There were subsequent tensions, especially in 2007, when the Romanian Patriarchate reactivated additional dioceses in Moldova. The rivalry is obviously a political one, related to the core of what Moldovan identity is. However, unlike Ukraine, this unsolved division within Orthodoxy is being downplayed. When the Romanian Patriarch Daniel and the Russian Patriarch Kirill met twice in 2017, they reportedly did not even discuss the issue. This quieter front may be related to the relatively small number of people who belong to the Bucharest-supported Metropolis of Bessarabia. Secondly, the Moldovan authorities are paying less attention to this issue, and only some pro-Moscow Ukrainian bishops see it as a dangerous precedent. The problem of a small Moldovan Orthodoxy is seen as minor compared to the other challenges facing Russia and its church, especially in Ukraine.

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