Tensions between Russian and Romanian Orthodox churches rise in Moldova

The war in neighboring Ukraine is giving a new impetus to the competition between Russian and Romanian Orthodox Churches in Moldova, with some clergy leaving the first to join the second, reports the Nachrichtendienst Östliche Kirchen (November 16). Due to historical circumstances, the autonomous Moldovan Orthodox Church finds itself under the Russian Church and is estimated to gather around 90 percent of the Moldovan Orthodox faithful, while a Metropolis of Bessarabia under the Romanian Church was established in 1992. As reported by RW (Vol. 34, No. 3, January 2019), Moldova remained a relatively quiet front in the context of intra-Orthodox disputes, but this is now rapidly changing, with differences being exacerbated by the geopolitical context. In 2023, around 50 priests defected from the Moldovan Orthodox Church, “largely because they were unhappy about the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for the war in Ukraine,” and have joined the Romanian Orthodox Church’s local diocese (Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty, November 9). The Synod of the Moldovan Church has stripped six defecting clergymen of their priestly status.

Nativity Cathedral in Chișinău, Republic of Moldova. Built in the 1830s, it belongs to the Moldovan Orthodox Church, subordinated to the Patriarchate of Moscow (© 2016 Alexandru Panoiu | Flickr).

In a leaked letter sent in September to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Vladimir, seemed to give up his pro-Russian stance and expressed concern about the consequences of support by Russian Orthodox clergy for the war in Ukraine, stating that it was costing souls for the Moldovan Church, and that the latter might have no choice but to become fully independent. Moreover, in November, Moldovan clerics remaining under Metropolitan Vladimir have appealed to him to enter into discussions with the Romanian Church for the purpose of joining it and thus correcting a “historical mistake.” However, on November 16, the Synod of the Moldovan Church distanced itself from such calls and announced that priests switching to another church without permission would be stripped of their priestly status (Nachrichtendienst Östliche Kirchen, November 30). The Romanian state meanwhile announced earlier this year that it would be granting financial support to the Metropolis of Bessarabia. Together with Moldova’s bids for membership in the European Union, what is happening in that small country (of 2.5 million inhabitants) has to be placed within the wider context of the reshaping of the political and ecclesiastical map of the Orthodox world.