The Republic of Moldova is Not Ukraine: Addressing the Question of Autocephaly in Moldova

By: Tatiana Cojocari

March 13, 2023

In the Republic of Moldova, the Metropolis of Chișinău and All Moldova (Orthodox Church of Moldova)—subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate and led by Metropolitan Vladimir—is the nation’s largest religious institution. In 2007, the Metropolis subsumed approximately 1,281 places of worship. The number has not changed significantly up to now.

Often, Metropolis clergy refer to their religious institution as the national church, although this title does not exist nor is it officially given. However, the Metropolis of Chișinău, compared to other religious and Orthodox denominations, enjoys special attention and protection from pro-Russian politicians. In return, the metropolitan publicly supports those officials.

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Metropolitan Vladimir has deftly navigated wartime messages with statements of neutrality. In February 2022, he issued a statement of concern declaring that “we are praying…to grant peace-bringing wisdom to all the political leaders responsible with the resolution of this armed conflict.” Metropolitan Vladimir emphasized a state of peace, condemning the war without condemning the aggressor.

Generally, this was the prevalent narrative throughout the year: calls to prayers for peace and negotiation between the two parties involved in the war. Simultaneously, Metropolitan Vladimir did not step away to honor the Moscow Patriarchate’s invitations to conduct religious sermons in Russia. The invitation coincided with the birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin and prayers for his health.

In contrast to Moldova, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC)—canonically subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate—addressed the Russian president to stop the “fratricidal war.” There have been cleavages developing within the Russian Orthodox Church between condemning or supporting the war, but not within the Metropolis of Chișinău.

In the first months of the war, several Orthodox priests from the Metropolis of Chișinău issued public declarations supporting the war and spreading Russian propaganda. Although Metropolitan Vladimir tried to distance himself from those declarations, blaming them as intended to “incite believers to inter-ethnic hatred and separation,” the pro-Russian priests continued to serve in their communities without any information on if or how they were sanctioned.

The Question of Autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in the Republic of Moldova

During a 2017 site visit to Chișinău, I discussed with representatives of the Metropolis of Chișinău the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church and what this could mean for the Republic of Moldova. Back then, as it is now, they emphasized the fact that the subordination of the church towards Moscow is purely a formal one. In their opinion, the canonical subordination comes from how the territory was split geopolitically between the sister patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

Thus, representatives of the Metropolis of Chișinău and All of Moldova believe that there is no moral conflict between belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate and protecting national interests:

“We are in no way the promoters of Russian state interests; we are strictly and absolutely promoters of the interests of the Republic of Moldova” (interview with the eparchial secretary of the Metropolis of Chișinău, May 2017).

They added that while an autocephaly of the church, if it would happen, would be a good thing, “it’s not up to us but to the sister patriarchates who do not wish this.” From the Metropolis of Chișinău’s perspective, it is wrong to condemn the religious institution for not wanting independence. In fact, society itself is the one without this interest, according to the eparchial secretary.

It is hard to recall a time when the Metropolis of Chișinău publicly favored autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Moldova. Moreover, the institution and its representatives treat the subject cautiously when it comes to autocephaly of UOC. In an interview, the spokesperson of the Metropolis stated that “an official position will be formed after coordinating with the Moscow Patriarchate—the institutions to which the Metropolis of Moldova is canonically subordinated…and that despite this subordination, the Metropolis has enough freedom.”

However, Metropolitan Vladimir sent an open letter of concern to former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko (November 26, 2018) regarding Pochaev Lavra which suggests a certain positioning towards the subject. In the letter, the metropolitan states that “the Synod of the Orthodox Church of Moldova…express[es] their words of support for all the clergy and Ukrainian people who belong to the one canonical Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

This reality has taken a different turn since the war began. In this new context, the metropolitan is faced with a double-edged sword: to pray for the Russian patriarch who blessed the war and simultaneously for peace; to pray for a political leader of an aggressor state or the president of the Republic of Moldova who urges the church to be in “solidarity with the state” but with whom Metropolitan Vladimir isn’t, in his own words, in the friendliest relations.

Moldova's Spiritual Subordination and Lack of Desire for Independence

Regardless of the security threat the war poses to Moldova, the Orthodox Church subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate initiates no talks on a possible autocephaly.

There might be several explanations for this. For instance, the Metropolis of Chișinău in Moldova always benefited from preferential treatment at the expense of other religious institutions. Thus, a lack of favorable and nondiscriminatory framework for the development and strengthening of all religious denominations could be noticed at the national level.

Also, in contrast to Ukraine, there never was a true fight for the minds and souls of believers in Moldova. The Metropolis of Bessarabia (part of the Patriarchate of Romania) has been constantly marginalized and discriminated against, with some exceptions, by governmental institutions regardless of political affiliations.

Furthermore, Moldova has never had a credible and committed political decision-maker who could faithfully shape and transform the discourse of the country’s spiritual independence into a national priority. Without a strong political discourse, public opinion cannot be structured. Without a solid public opinion, there is no social pressure towards a change in religious institution. From this perspective, it is erroneous to condemn the Metropolis of Chișinău for avoiding talks of autocephaly while no one is requesting it.

More importantly, as Romeo Cemîrtan pointed out, an independent Orthodox Church cannot even exist in the Republic of Moldova: “Constantinople knows that we are not a separate nation of Romanians. We are a priori part of Romanian spirituality and church.”

Although different religious movements arose at the beginning of the 1990s, including the one claiming to be an independent Orthodox Church, they were delegitimized and too weak to create a precedent. Political and religious conservatism, as well as pro-Russia leanings, won. Historically, the Republic of Moldova has been canonically governed in turns by the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Russian counterpart. That’s why, for Moldovan society, the desire for spiritual independence has not existed even as an ideal compared to Ukraine.

Therefore, although the Republic of Moldova experienced Russian aggression even earlier than Ukraine with the conflict in Transnistria, its attempt to escape the spiritual subordination of Russia has failed and continues to fail.

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