Police crackdown on church goers in Moldova

Chisinau, Moldova - An intimidation campaign involving police check-ups on the identities of church-goers is underway in Moldova, as part of the Eastern European country's latest crackdown on religious freedom.

The police checks target a series of churches which are considered illegal by Moldova's government due to a lack of proper, official registration in the country. However, as church leaders point out, it is the Moldovan government which refuses to register the congregations: They range from Orthodox groups, Protestant congregations and every single one of the Muslim communities in the country.

" - Someone must have given an order not to register us," complained Talgat Masaev, who leads the Spiritual Organization of Muslims in Moldova. He said that Moldova rejected their latest registration application in December 2007, citing inadequacies in the group's statute. "The policy hasn't changed," Masaev lamented.

Masaev's Muslim group has long complained of police check-ups on those leaving Friday prayers. "The fact that they check up at Friday prayers is difficult to understand," he said. "This and the denial of registration are strange, given that Moldova is supposed to be moving closer to Europe."

Four times as many religions in Transdniestria

The situation is only better in Transdniestria (Pridnestrovie) which for nearly 18 years has functioned as an independent state outside the sovereign control of Moldova's central government. In Transdniestria, despite being smaller in size than Moldova,

four times as many religious faiths are registered than in all of Moldova.

One Moldovan priests, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of persecution, says that he is planning to move his church to Tiraspol, the capital of the Transdniestrian Republic. "There, at least, we can get registered and then open our place of worship legally without any fear of police intrusion."

The only Orthodox jurisdictions to have been able to gain state registration in Moldova by applying through normal state procedures are the Moscow Patriarchate and the Belokrinitsa Old Believers.

The Bessarabian Metropolitanate only achieved registration in 2001 in the wake of a fine imposed on Moldova by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. A similar fine from the ECHR in February 2007 has still failed to overturn the denial of registration to the True Orthodox Church led by Bishop Antoni Rudei.

Without registration, religious communities have no status in law, cannot operate bank accounts, cannot employ people officially, cannot invite foreign citizens, cannot receive funds legally, and cannot own, buy or sell any kind of property.

No rule of law in Moldova

A wide range of Orthodox, Protestant and Muslim communities are still denied registration in Moldova. They are all legally registered in Transdniestria, however, which is the only area of the region where they can function openly and without any form of government harassment.

Bishop Filaret (Pancu), who leads the diocese in Moldova of the Kiev Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said that his Church tried to gain registration again in summer 2007.

" - They give no argument as to why they won't register us – they just won't," the church leader told Norway's Forum 18 news on 17 January. "We won in all the courts, right up to the Supreme Court." However, the government does what it wants, while demonstrating to the rest of the world that Moldova is not a country which respects the rule of law.

Fr Vasily Ikizli, who leads one of four parishes in Moldova of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad under the jurisdiction of Archbishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Odessa, says his parish was denied registration in 2006. "They won't register any parishes until we have a national body registered, but they won't do that," he said from the village of Congaz in the southern Comrat District, in Gagauzia. He said that about 150 people attend the liturgy each Sunday held in a private house and he wants to build a church, but cannot do so without legal registration.

Deacon Andrei Deleu of the Bessarabian Metropolitanate confirms that his church has faced a number of problems with the government in recent weeks, "including the expulsion of Romanian priests and intrusive check-ups on our parishes." (With information from Forum 18)