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A Church divided Russia’s war against Ukraine fuels tensions in Moldova’s main Orthodox Church

Source: Meduza

Story by Paula Erizanu for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

The polished dark-gray onion dome of the Saint Dumitru Church rises proudly among the low-rise Soviet housing blocks in a residential area of the Moldovan capital Chișinău. Dozens of people rush in for the evening service. Inside, they find themselves surrounded by brightly-colored walls, covered in Byzantine icons and murals depicting biblical scenes. The main inscription above the nave is a Romanian translation of a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” 

Well-trained men’s voices dominate the choir, which sings Orthodox hymns in Romanian along with a handful of songs in Old Slavonic. Archpriest Pavel Borșevschi opens the vespers in Romanian, too, with prayers for Moldova’s Metropolitan Vladimir (Cantarean), the nation, its rulers, and peace — but not for Russia’s Patriarch Kirill. This is one of the few signs of the Moldovan Orthodox Church’s autonomy from Moscow. 

The Metropolis of Moldova is the country’s main Orthodox Church, canonically subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. But in November 2023, Father Borșevschi sent a letter on behalf of priests from some 30 churches to Metropolitan Vladimir, asking him to initiate the Moldovan Orthodox Church’s transition to the jurisdiction of the Romanian Patriarchate. 

A meeting led by Metropolitan Vladimir rejected the request following a tight vote. However, parishioners who spoke to The Beet in February remained divided on the issue. Ion, 54, and Nicolae, 47, said they supported the priests’ call to break with Moscow, adding that the Metropolitan’s response wasn’t “fatherly.” Ana, 45, said she’d be happy under either Patriarchate because “there’s only one God.”

Then there was Valeriu, 60, who instantly declared his pro-Russian stance and blamed the war in Ukraine on “miseries” stemming from the 2004 Orange Revolution. At the other end of the political spectrum was Ala, 59, who admitted that she’s been waiting for the Moldovan Church to move to the Romanian Patriarchate “since the 1990s” and supports Moldova’s reunification with Romania. 

“Russia is not for peace but instead stands for war,” Ala said. “We should be open and speak the truth, and fear only God.” 

‘They told me it wasn’t possible’

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has already led the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to sever ties with Moscow, has also had repercussions for religious life in neighboring Moldova, where Orthodox believers are mainly divided between the larger Metropolis of Moldova, encompassing 1,300 parishes, and the smaller Metropolis of Bessarabia under the Romanian Patriarchate, with 300 parishes.

Moldovan clerics at all levels have invoked Patriarch Kirill’s support for the Russian army as the reason for distancing themselves from Moscow, with none other than Metropolitan Vladimir sending a surprisingly bold letter to the Russian Patriarch, and individual priests migrating to the Romanian Patriarchate. According to the Bessarabian Orthodox Church, nearly 50 priests have made the switch and dozens more are in the process of doing so, as well. The Moldovan Orthodox Church, however, claims the number of defectors is as low as 13. 

Vasile Enachi and Ioan Solonaru were among the first priests to make the transition, changing patriarchates in August 2023. “My father was enlisted in the Romanian Army together with King Mihai at Buftea, in 1940–1946. My mother’s parents are buried in Buftea, Romania,” said Enachi, who serves a congregation in Ișnovăț, a village north of Chișinău. “I tried to move to the Bessarabian Metropolitan Church 25 years ago, but they told me it wasn't possible because of a mess with the documents.” 

Orthodox priest Ioan Solonaru blesses believers during a religious service at his church in the village of Cimișeni. November 12, 2023.
Daniel Mihailescu / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The Metropolis of Bessarabia was founded in 1925, back when most of the territory that makes up present-day Moldova was part of Romania. After the Soviet Union annexed these territories from Romania during World War II, the authorities outlawed the Bessarabian Orthodox Church and persecuted its clerics. Even after Moldova gained independence from the USSR in 1991, the authorities refused to recognize or register the Bessarabian Church; it took a European Human Rights Court ruling in 2001 for the Moldovan government to respect religious freedom and legally register it. 

The Metropolis of Chișinău and All Moldova, meanwhile, claims to be the successor of the medieval Metropolis of Moldova with its seat in Iași, Romania. However, it’s actually the successor of local Orthodox structures that were first brought under the Russian Patriarchate after the Russian Empire annexed most of what is now Moldova (along with territories that are now part of Ukraine) in 1812. In the interwar period, when Moldova was part of Romania, the Moldovan Orthodox Church came under the Romanian Patriarchate — only to end up back under Russian jurisdiction after the Soviet Union annexed Moldova in the 1940s. Just like in Ukraine, Moscow’s occupation of Moldova involved the Russian occupation of its church. Unlike in Ukraine, however, Moldova never had an autocephalous structure. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion triggered a similar process in Ukraine, albeit on a larger scale. In 2022–2023, 955 religious communities officially transferred from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) jurisdiction to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, according to Kyiv’s State Service for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience. Yet, in Ukraine, some transfers have been marred by violence. A new bill, which the Verkhovna Rada is set to vote on in a second reading, aims to reduce Russian influence further in Ukrainian religious life. It’s still unclear what will happen to Ukrainian parishes wanting to maintain their connections to Moscow.

‘Complete heresy’

Like Vasile Enachi, Ioan Solonaru also said he decided to change patriarchates a long time ago. “But the tipping point came when Patriarch Kirill blessed Russia’s war in Ukraine and said that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine would have their sins washed away — that is complete heresy,” Solonaru told The Beet. 

Solonaru’s congregation in Cimișeni, a village east of Chișinău, also insisted upon distancing their church from Moscow, he said. “In the first months of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we had over 2,000 Ukrainian refugees pass through our village, and we helped provide them with bed linens, underwear, hygiene products, etcetera. We spoke to them and heard their stories of war,” Solonaru recalled.

However, a 2004 court ruling proved to be an impediment. Made during the mandate of a pro-Russian government, the decision brought 700 churches considered “cultural monuments” under the jurisdiction of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, meaning any priest who joined the Romanian Patriarchate risked losing his church to another priest from the Russian Patriarchate. A judiciary court overturned this ruling in March 2023. 

Not long beforehand, Solonaru heard rumors that the Moldovan Church’s Metropolitan Vladimir was considering moving away from Moscow. “We waited and waited, but he wouldn’t make up his mind,” the priest recalled. Enachi said he even spoke to Metropolitan Vladimir directly about his intentions to leave the Russian Patriarchate in July 2023. “He didn’t say anything but looked at me coldly as if I were a stranger.” 


Dispatch from Gagauzia Moldova’s autonomous region where Soviet-era Russification and Moscow’s political influence remain strong


Dispatch from Gagauzia Moldova’s autonomous region where Soviet-era Russification and Moscow’s political influence remain strong

In the end, Enachi and Solonaru spoke to several colleagues about making the transition themselves. Only four of them followed through over the summer of 2023. 

Weeks later, in September, Metropolitan Vladimir — who was born in a village in Ukraine’s western Chernivtsi region to a Romanian father and a Ukrainian mother — finally made up his mind and sent a strongly worded letter to Patriarch Kirill. He wrote that public trust in the Church had dropped from 90 to 70 percent due to its association with Moscow, putting it at risk of “institutional failure.” 

A trend “that concerns our people and the clergy, 80 percent of whom hold Romanian citizenship,” wrote Metropolitan Vladimir, “is the increasingly persistent desire of the Russian Patriarchate to absorb the Metropolis of Moldova into the so-called ‘Russian World,’ which is foreign to our aspirations and our national values.” He also complained that “both secular and ecclesiastical authorities in Russia have treated us and continue to treat us as a peripheral and spineless people, deprived of the right to make the decisions we consider necessary for our well-being and prosperity.”

‘Preserving the unity of the Church’

The public only learned about Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter a month later, when Sergei Chapnin, a former high-profile Moscow Patriarchate employee who is now a senior fellow at the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University in the United States, mentioned the epistle in a social media post

Chapnin told The Beet that Patriarch Kirill replied to the letter — something the Moldovan Orthodox Church denied — but he was unwilling to share the contents of the response. According to the Russian theologian, subsequent events revealed that Metropolitan Vladimir “employed the tactic of ‘asking for a lot to get at least something.’” (That something, Chapnin said, was the approval of Archimandrite Filaret’s consecration as a bishop, which took place last October after a year-long wait.)

Within a week of Chapnin’s post, Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter leaked online. Vlad Cubreacov, a controversial former Moldovan lawmaker now based in Bucharest, posted a Romanian translation on his blog, which spread like wildfire. A spokesman for the Moldovan Orthodox Church confirmed the letter’s authenticity — and it made headlines in Moldova for weeks. 

Two women walk towards the Moldovan Orthodox Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity in Chișinău. October 22, 2023.
Sebastian Gollnow / dpa / Scanpix / LETA

The letter from the Chișinău priests led by Archpriest Pavel Borșevschi came out the next month, in November. The Moldovan Orthodox Church convened an assembly to discuss the appeal but remained divided over moving to the Romanian Patriarchate. Borșevschi said that he and his fellow priests eventually voted to preserve “the unity of the church” so that, when the time came, priests could move to the Romanian Patriarchate en masse rather than individually. He added that the assembly preferred that the Moldovan Metropolis join the Romanian Patriarchate without involving the Bessarabian Orthodox Church.

Sources from both Chișinău and Bucharest who asked to remain anonymous told The Beet that the Moldovan Metropolis and the Romanian Patriarchate had discussed how exactly such a mass move could take place. But while Chișinău expected the resignation of the Metropolitan of Bessarabia Petru (Păduraru), Bucharest was waiting for Metropolitan Vladimir to quit first — without saying so explicitly.

The Bessarabian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, openly stated that the Moldovan Metropolis could not circumvent it in a potential transition to the Romanian Patriarchate. It insisted that the only possible scenario was for individual priests to switch to the Bessarabian Church. 

The Moldovan Orthodox Church took more drastic measures to discourage individual priests from defecting, defrocking eight priests who had joined the Bessarabian Church, including Solonaru and Enachi. Bucharest dismissed Chișinău’s decision, saying it does not apply to its clergy.

According to Solonaru, some priests who wanted to follow in his footsteps faced pressure to stay with the Moldovan Orthodox Church from mayors or regional councilors from pro-Russian political parties. “Others think their congregations would not agree or are put off by the donors who built the churches,” Solonaru added.

Enachi also said he alerted the authorities when he made the switch, fearing violence provoked by pro-Russian groups. According to the priest, they told him to beware of anything he drinks or eats — in case of poisoning attempts. Luckily, the transition was peaceful.

‘Material interests’

Metropolitan Vladimir’s letter to Patriarch Kirill also mentioned another, perhaps more pragmatic, reason why Moldovan priests might be tempted to forsake Moscow. Thanks to funding from Bucharest, the Romanian Patriarchate offers all its priests monthly salaries of 250 euros ($270), plus medical insurance and pensions. Under the Russian Patriarchate, meanwhile, priests are actually expected to pay tithes to the Moldovan Orthodox Church. 

Enachi told The Beet that he had to pay the equivalent of $48 per month to the Metropolis of Chișinău, and, on top of that, he was asked to chip in for Patriarch Kirill’s visits. “We give a lot of money apart from taxes: to priests on their birthdays, for meals when [Patriarch] Kirill came, to buy their hats from Moscow [...] But how can I do a good thing on behalf of the church, as well?” Enachi asked rhetorically. “I told them: There are poor priests, with many children, who hold religious services in flip flops. How do you expect them to pay for these things?” 

A worshiper cleans the floor of an Orthodox church in Bălți, Moldova. November 5, 2023.
Pierre Crom / Getty Images

At the same time, he maintained that his decision to switch patriarchates was not financially motivated and that he planned to donate his salary to an orphanage as soon as he receives it. Moreover, since he stopped paying money to the Moldovan Orthodox Church, Enachi has started his own charity projects, such as donating $485 to the local school as an award for the top-performing pupils.

The Moldovan Orthodox Church has consistently criticized the Romanian Patriarchate for offering economic incentives. “It is painful how material interests give rise to an opportunistic patriotism in some servants of the Church, and the salary offered influences the perception of nationality,” Metropolitan Vladimir wrote in a letter to Patriarch Daniel of Romania on March 4.

The Metropolitan himself has faced criticism for traveling to Moscow to officiate religious services on behalf of the Moldovan Orthodox Church. Bishop Ioan of Soroca, a vicar and church spokesman, defended the visits by likening Metropolitan Vladimir to a diplomat. “Just like the Republic of Moldova has an embassy in Russia, so does Metropolitan Vladimir go and serve the diaspora, like a diplomatic mission,” he told The Beet.

At the same time, the Bishop of Soroca maintained that despite its formal subordination to the Moscow Patriarchate, the Moldovan Orthodox Church is an “independent institution.” And priests decide individually whether to mention Patriarch Kirill or just Metropolitan Vladimir in their blessings, he explained. “The vast majority of priests do not mention Kirill in their prayers,” the Bishop of Soroca said. “We have firmly condemned the fratricidal war in Ukraine and any pro-war declarations,” he added.

Solonaru says he thinks a complete break with Moscow is still possible in Moldova: “If there was the will [from the top leadership], a large part of the Moldovan Metropolitan Church could join the Romanian Patriarchate. Yet, for that to happen, there is a lot of discussion to be had with priests, monks, and nuns. There’s a lot of work to do.”

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Story by Paula Erizanu for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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