In Moldovan Church ‘Gesture’ Some See Favoritism, Or Possible Precedent – Analysis

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Religious groups in Moldova, robbed of their property by the Soviets, are watching with interest as authorities move to return a part of the National Library to the Metropolis of Bessarabia.

By Madalin Necsutu

In early March, Moldova’s ruling Party of Action and Solidarity, PAS, submitted a bill to hand over a wing of the country’s National Library to the Metropolis of Bessarabia, canonically subordinate to the Romanian Orthodox Church.

The building had once served as the seat of the Metropolis’ Chisinau Theological Seminary; PAS MPs portrayed the bill as a gesture of goodwill between two states that once were one, at a moment when Moldova is seeking to integrate with the European Union, of which Romania is a member.

The Metropolis of Bessarabia is the second biggest church in Moldova in terms of worshippers, after the Metropolis of Moldova, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church.

The move, however, has been criticised as discriminatory, favouring one religious community over myriad others that were snuffed out under Soviet rule and had their properties seized by the state.

Currently, Moldovan law does not provide for restitution of property claimed by legal entities, only private individuals.

If Moldova “hands something over to the Metropolis of Bessarabia then it should be checked whether there were other religious communities that suffered injustices after 1940 and to which we should do justice,” said Petru Ciobanu, chancellor of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chisinau, who told BIRN that the Catholic Church is currently compiling a list of properties confiscated from the Church by the Soviets.

“For example, the Catholic Cathedral – Divine Providence – in Chisinau is currently the property of the state, and we are the only ones who use it,” he said.

According to historian Octavian Ticu, if all religious communities submitted claims and were successful, “pretty much the entire centre of Chisinau would have to be returned to their previous owners.”

No progress on Holocaust-era restitution claims

Formerly known as Bessarabia, Moldova was part of a Principality of Moldova until 1812, when it was ceded to Russia and remained part of the Russian empire until after World War One, when it became part of Greater Romania.

In 1940, when the region was annexed by the Soviet Union, the Metropolis of Bessarabia boasted around 1,000 churches and 25 monasteries, maintained by some 2,000 monks, according to the Moldovan historian Valeriu Pasat, though geographer Alexandru Cerga told BIRN this likely underestimated its true holdings.

The Soviets confiscated its entire property – and that of other religious communities – and imprisoned its priests or sent them to the Gulag.

“All the lands of the peasants and the churches were nationalized and transferred to the state and then divided up,” said historian Ion Siscanu.

Ticu said some churches and places of worship were used for other purposes, such as the church on the grounds of the State University in Chisinau, which “was converted into a gym.”

Others, he said, were simply torn down.

“We had a Lutheran church on the main boulevard Stefan cel Mare in Chisinau,” Ticu told BIRN. “The Metropolitan Palace was also destroyed, as was the Diocesan House of the Metropolis of Bessarabia. The current seat of the government is located on the land of the former headquarters of the Metropolis of Bessarabia.”

Some observers say the return of just one property to the Metropolis of Bessarabia, which answers to the Romanian Orthodox Church, may set a precedent. Subsequent claims, however, face being stymied by the fact that there is no law regulating the restitution of properties to legal entities, only to private individuals.

In a 2022 report on human rights in Moldova, the US State Department underscored the lack of progress on resolution of Holocaust-era claims, including by foreign citizens. “The state did not return any property to the Jewish community that it bought or is seeking communal and religious properties through litigation.”

“Jewish groups continued to seek a comprehensive restitution solution for communal property instead of the piecemeal approach in which individual buildings have been returned,” it said.

Double standards?

Virgiliu Paslariuc, a historian and one of the PAS MPs who submitted the bill, said the return of the building was a gesture of goodwill, not an act of restitution.

“In Moldova, the legal framework does not allow this,” he said. “We said this gesture is to give this building because we are talking about a historical monument.”

“Currently the building is practically mutilated by the adjacent constructions that have been made, and it must return to its original appearance,” Paslariuc told BIRN, referring to a restaurant and bar. “Therefore investment will be needed, including capital repairs to the roof, and the Romanian Orthodox Church expressed interest in doing this.”

Constantin Olariu, secretary of the Metropolis of Bessarabia, said the building would be used as a theological seminary, as in the interwar period, to educate future priests in collaboration with the ‘Alexandru Ioan Cuza’ University in Iasi, Romania.

The Metropolis of Moldova, which answers to Moscow, holds far more property than the Metropolis of Bessarabia, but since Chisinau was obliged in 2001 by the European Court of Human Rights to register the latter, its influence has grown considerably, backed by Bucharest.

Some see double standards in the PAS ‘gesture,’ however.

“It is always reasonable to give back the properties which belonged to other religious communities, but things in Moldova are not going in this direction,” said Rabbi Shimshon Daniel Izakson of the Jewish Community of Moldova. “The Jewish community is always trying to ask for the return of its former properties, but the Moldovan state gave nothing back.”

Izakson showed BIRN of what he said were some 60 Jewish religious sites in Chisinau in 1911.

Between 1913 and 1940, the choral synagogue in Chisinau served as the centre of Jewish worship in the city, but in 1945 it was turned by Soviet authorities into the Russian ‘Anton Chekhov’ theatre, which still operates to this day.

Heated debate

The move by Moldova’s ruling party to return the building has triggered heated debate among Moldovans online.

Some have expressed concern about the fate of the books currently housed there, while others are opposed to changing the building’s purpose, which is currently one of education.

Many, however, say it is simply unfair to favour one community over all others.

“Besides the injustice towards heritage and culture, I am against this ‘gesture of goodwill’ because it gives privileges and favours one community over others,” activist Ion Andronache wrote on Facebook.

Also writing on Facebook, prominent lawyer Vladislav Gribincea questioned the legality of such a move.

“If such a thing is desired, similar gifts must be made to all communities!” he wrote. “Given the secular character of our state, I have doubts that such actions can be legally justified.”

Asked whether the government’s ‘gesture’ could set a precedent, Ticu replied: “I think so, but I don’t know who could claim it. There were many synagogues. Also, the Greek Catholics had properties. Now it is in ruins.”

“It could become a precedent,” he said, but it would require a shift in policy by those in power. “If the ruling party does not desire it, the other religious communities will not achieve this goal.”

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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