International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the law includes restrictions that at times inhibit the activities of some religious groups.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, and government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion; however, the Government continued to uphold its earlier decisions to deny some groups registration. There is no state religion; however, the Moldovan Orthodox Church receives some special treatment from the Government. A number of minority religious groups in the separatist region of Transnistria continued to be denied registration and subjected to official harassment.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, disputes among various branches of the Christian Orthodox faith continued, and there was one reported instance of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery. Unlike in the period covered by the previous report, no major cases of harassment were reported.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of approximately 13,000 square miles and its population is approximately 4.5 million. The predominant religion is Christian Orthodox. More than 90 percent of the population nominally belong to one of two Orthodox denominations, the Moldovan Church claims more than 1,000 parishes, and the Bessarabian Church claims close to 100. In addition followers of the Old Rite Russian Orthodox Church (Old Believers) make up approximately 3.6 percent of the population. The religious traditions of the Orthodox Church are entwined with the culture and patrimony of the country. Many self-professed atheists routinely celebrate religious holidays, cross themselves, and even light candles and kiss icons if the occasion demands. Other faiths include: Roman Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is, Jews, followers of Reverend Moon, Molocans (a Russian group), Messianic Jews (who believe that Jesus was the Messiah), Lutherans, Presbyterians, Hare Krishnas, and some other charismatic Christian and evangelical Christian groups. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) has 2 congregations, with approximately 170 members.

According to the most recently available numbers, the Jewish community has approximately 31,300 members, including approximately 20,000 living in Chisinau; 3,100 in Balti and surrounding areas; 2,200 in Tiraspol; 2,000 in Benderi; and 4,000 in small towns.

These numbers, provided by the groups themselves, may be only rough approximations, as they do not appear to have been adjusted for the substantial emigration that took place over the period covered by this report.

Foreign missionaries represent many faiths and denominations.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the 1992 Law on Religions, which codifies religious freedoms contains restrictions that have inhibited the activities of unregistered religious groups. The law provides for freedom of religious practice, including each person's right to profess his religion in any form. It also protects the confidentiality of the confessional, allows denominations to establish associations and foundations, and states that the Government may not interfere in the religious activities of denominations. The Law specifies that "in order to organize and function," religious organizations must be registered with the Government, and unregistered groups may not own property, engage employees, or obtain space in public cemeteries in their own names. There is no state religion; however, the Moldovan Orthodox Church receives some favored treatment from the Government. The Metropolitan of Chisinau and All Moldova has a diplomatic passport. Other high-ranking Orthodox Church officials also reportedly have diplomatic passports issued by the Government.

The procedures for registering a religious organization are the same for all groups. Under the Law on Religions, an organization wishing to register must submit a request to the Cabinet. The Department of Religions examines the required statutes and the organization chart of the religious body, determines whether the officers of the Moldovan branch of the religion are, as required by law, citizens of the country, and examines whether the organization's beliefs fail to conform with the Constitution or any other laws. The ultimate recognition or rejection of the registration application is accomplished by government decree signed by the Prime Minister and printed in the Official Gazette. The Government has recognized 20 religious organizations; however, a number of organizations have been denied registration or encountered difficulties in connection with their registration applications. In 1999 amendments to the Law on Religion legalizing proselytizing went into effect. However, the law explicitly forbids "abusive proselytizing," which is defined as an attempt to influence an individual's religious faith through violence or abuse of authority. At the end of the period covered by this report the authorities had not taken any legal action against any individual for proselytizing.

Foreign missionaries are permitted to enter the country. They experience the same difficulties in obtaining residence permits and customs clearances as other foreign workers.

A 2000 Parliamentary decree made "moral and spiritual" instruction mandatory for primary school students and optional for secondary and university students. The Ministry of Education had planned for the instruction to begin in September 2000; however, difficulties arose in establishing the nature of this religious instruction. Such difficulties, combined with the chronic financial problems of the country's schools, have continued to prevent the implementation of the decree.

Two public schools and a kindergarten are open only to Jewish students. These schools receive the same funding as the other state schools and are supplemented by financial support from the community. However, Jewish students are not restricted to these schools. There are no comparable schools for Moldovan Orthodox believers and no reports of such schools for other religious faiths. Agudath Israel operates a private boys' yeshiva and a girls' yeshiva, both licensed by the Ministry of Education. The total enrollment of both schools is fewer than 100 students. There are a number of theological institutes, seminaries, and other places of religious education throughout the country.

The authorities in Transnistria (a separatist region not under the control of the Government) also impose registration requirements that negatively affect religious groups and have denied registration to some groups.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Law on Religions contains restrictions that have inhibited the activities of unregistered religious groups and the Government continued to deny registration to some religious groups. The Government has cited Article 15 of the law, which prohibits registration of "schismatic movements" of a particular religion, as the basis for its decision not to recognize two Orthodox Christian groups. However, according to critics, the Government's interpretation of this article is selective. For example, the Government recognizes the following as separate religions: the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and the Reform Movement Seventh Day Adventist Church; the Federation of Jewish Communities and the Union of Messianic Jewish Communities; and the Orthodox Church of Chisinau and All Moldova and the Russian Old Rite Orthodox Church.

Unregistered religious organizations are not permitted to buy land or obtain construction permits for churches or seminaries. In some cases, members of unregistered religious groups hold services in homes, nongovernmental organization (NGO) offices, and other locations. In other cases, the groups obtain property and permits in the names of individual members.

The continued attempt by the Bessarabian Orthodox Church to obtain registration was unsuccessful during the period covered by this report. On April 24, 2002, in response to broader antigovernment demonstrations, the Council of Europe (COE) issued a report on the functioning of democratic institutions in Moldova. Its recommendations included registration of the Bessarabian Church by July 31. Government authorities assured the COE that they would comply with the recommendations, but Justice Minister Morei stated that the Government might not be able to meet the deadline because it would first need to change certain existing laws.

The Church had appealed its case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 1998 after the Government had denied several applications for registration. On December 13, 2001, the ECHR ruled that the Government had violated articles of the European Convention concerning freedom of religion and the right to an effective appeal by refusing to register the Bessarabian Church. The Government objected to this ruling and on February 22, 2002, appealed the decision and requested a hearing from the ECHR Grand Chamber. On March 27, the ECHR refused to hear the appeal.

The Bessarabian Orthodox Church was formed in 1992 when a number of priests broke away from the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate. The Bessarabian Orthodox Church, which regards itself as the legal and canonical successor to the pre-World War II Romanian Orthodox Church in Bessarabia (the territory bounded by the Nistru, Prut, and Danube Rivers and the Black Sea, of which most of present-day Moldova is a part) subordinated itself to the Bucharest Patriarchate of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Recognition of the Bessarabian Church could have implications for the church's ongoing property disputes with the Moldovan Orthodox Church, and the Government consistently has cited these issues, as well as its designation of the Bessarabian Church as a "schismatic movement," in its denial of registration. On September 27, 2001, the Government declared the Moldovan Orthodox Church the successor to the pre-World War II Romanian Orthodox Church for purposes of all property ownership, although no attempt has been made to seize those properties already in Bessarabian Church hands. The registration issue has political as well as religious overtones, since it raises the question of whether the Orthodox Church should be united and oriented toward Moscow, or divided, with a branch oriented toward Bucharest.

On November 5, 2001, a Communist parliamentary deputy called on Parliament to expel opposition deputy Vlad Cubreacov, a prominent figure in the Bessarabian Church, on the grounds that Cubreacov was an advisor to an "anti-constitutional" church structure. Parliament took no action on the proposal. Cubreacov disappeared on March 21, 2002, in the midst of a series of anti-Government protests, and reappeared May 25, claiming that still-unknown Russian-speaking kidnapers had held him. Although the disappearance is still unexplained, many believe that it may have been related to his work with the Church.

On May 29, 2002, after a long series of registration denials and legal appeals, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the Government must register the Church of the True Orthodox-Moldova, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad based in the United States. The Church had submitted applications for registration in 1997, 1998, and 2000; the Government rejected the applications on various grounds. The Government had not registered this Church by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Mormons continued to face bureaucratic obstacles and were not successful in obtaining registration during the period covered by this report.

In May 2002, the Supreme Court of Justice affirmed rulings of lower courts that upheld the Government's refusal, on technical grounds, to register the Spiritual Organization of Muslims in Moldova, the main Muslim organization in the country. The organization filed a case with the ECHR in September 2001, and the ECHR acknowledged receipt of the claim in March 2002; however, no other action was taken during the period covered by this report. The Muslim organization also asserted that it was discriminated against because some members are Afghan and Chechen refugees.

The law provides for restitution to politically repressed or exiled persons of property that was confiscated during the successive Nazi and Soviet regimes. This regulation, in effect, has been extended to religious communities; however, the Moldovan Orthodox Church has been favored over other religious groups in this area. The Church had little difficulty in recovering nearly all of its property and, in cases where property was destroyed, the Government offered alternative compensation. The Church has recovered churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and administrative properties. Property disputes among the Moldovan and Bessarabian Churches have not been resolved. The Jewish community has experienced mixed results in its effort to recover its property. The Baptist Church only has only one remaining property restitution claim. In May 2001, the Molocans appealed to Parliament to hear their property restitution case, but the Parliament denied their request on the grounds that it was not within its jurisdiction. There was no movement on the Molocans' case during the period covered by this report.

Authorities in Transnistria used registration requirements and other legal mechanisms to restrict the religious freedom of some religious groups. Evangelical religious groups meeting in private homes reportedly have been told that they do not have the correct permits to use their residences as venues for religious services. In the past they and other non-Orthodox groups generally were not allowed to rent property and often were harassed during religious services. In December 2001, Transnistrian authorities threatened to demolish a house in which Baptists had been meeting. However, the threat had not been carried out as of June 30, 2002, and the Baptists continued to meet there.

In 1998 the authorities in Transnistria canceled the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses. Repeated attempts by members of Jehovah's Witnesses to reregister have been denied or delayed. In late 2001, Jehovah's Witnesses lodged a court action against a Transnistrian official for allegedly abusing his office by blocking a property purchase. The case was settled on June 26, 2002, but on June 29 the Prosecutor General filed a case against Jehovah's Witnesses claiming that the organization had submitted invalid documents for its activities. There have been no reported instances since January 2000 in which Transnistrian officials confiscated religious tracts from members of Jehovah's Witnesses. The Methodist Church was denied registration in late 2000 and made no progress in its efforts to have its case reviewed. The Church of the Living God has been denied registration in five towns in Transnistria. The Church has not been in contact with international organizations since 2000, and some international observers believe it has ceased to exist.

The Baptist community in Transnistria remains unregistered. During the period covered by this report, Baptists in Transnistria complained of increased harassment from the authorities. One Baptist group reportedly was accused of having constructed its church in Tiraspol illegally, and the authorities reportedly threatened to demolish it. The matter drew some international attention, and the authorities since have permitted the church to continue to function. In the February 2001 Moldovan parliamentary elections, a reported 80 percent of those persons from Transnistria who crossed the Dniester River to vote (voting was not allowed in Transnistria itself), voted for independent candidate, and Baptist minister, Valeriu Ghiletchi.

In April 2001, Russian Patriarch Alexei II named Tiraspol Bishop Justinian to the post of Rector of the Theological Seminary at the Noul Neamt Monastery in Chitcani. The monastery is on the western bank of the Nistru River and traditionally has come under the religious authority of Chisinau Metropolitan Vladimir, although the area is under the de facto control of the separatist regime in Transnistria. The monks resisted the appointment, and Bishop Justinian used the Transnistrian military to force his entry into the monastery. A heated controversy ensued, ultimately resulting in Metropolitan Vladimir's reinstatement as rector in August 2001. In January 2002, the seminary moved to Chisinau.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relations among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The dispute between the Moldovan and Bessarabian Orthodox Churches is ongoing (see Section II); however, the adherents of the respective Churches do not interfere with each others' freedom to worship.

Dozens of graves in Chisinau's main Jewish cemetery were desecrated in April 2002, and many of the gravestones were destroyed. The Jewish Community received reports that a group of teenagers confessed to the crime, but the Government has not filed criminal charges. The Jewish Community requested that the city place full-time armed guards at the cemetery, but the presence of the guards was reported to be sporadic.

Some Jewish cemeteries in Transnistria also were desecrated. Three youths were charged with the vandalism in one such incident, but no verdict was reached as of June 30, 2002.

In contrast to previous years, there were no reported examples during the period covered by this report of negative press articles about non-Orthodox religions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. U.S. Embassy officers have met with Baptist, Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, True Orthodox, and Bessarabian Orthodox leaders as well as their legal representatives, to discuss registration, restitution, and other problems the organizations have had with the authorities.

The U.S. Ambassador met with leaders of the major religious organizations at various times during the period covered by this report. Embassy employees maintain official or social contact with most of the resident American missionaries. The Embassy has supported the activities of religious (and secular) groups.

The Embassy's human rights officer maintains regular contact with religious leaders throughout the country, including in the separatist Transnistria region.