Moldova’s population is now only about 2.5 million after the immigration of some 1.2 million Moldovans to Western Europe began after the fall of the USSR, especially since Romania joined the EU. (Most Moldovans have Romanian passports; some 15 years ago they could be bought quite simply for only $10).
The Orthodox Church in 95% + Orthodox Moldova is divided into two. Firstly, since the Soviet Occupation that began in 1941 there has been the Moldovan Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, with seven bishops and some 1200 parishes. Secondly, since the fall of the USSR there has been a second Church, the Metropolia of Bessarabia. This reconstitutes the Church as it was before 1941 as part of the Patriarchate of Romania (over 80% of the Moldovan population is Romanian). Over the last thirty years that part has gradually built up, though even now only about 250 parishes belong to it. However, that number has increased particularly over the last eighteen months, since the conflict in the Ukraine entered its latest phase.
Metropolitan Vladimir (Cantarean), the leader of the Moscow part of the Church, is losing on 2 fronts; at home and abroad. At home priests and parishes are leaving for the Metropolia of Bessarabia, which is supported both by the Romanian government and by the pro-Western Moldovan government. His ‘competition’, the Metropolia of Bessarabia, is fully canonical. This is despite the usual absurd Russian propaganda from the extremists, who ridiculously claim that those in the Romanian Church are ‘schismatics’ or ‘have no grace’!
Abroad, Metr Vladimir is also losing: young people and clergy are leaving corrupt and impoverished Moldova for a better life and so churches back home have less income and few children. Abroad, the hundreds of Moldovan parishes, especially in Italy, Spain and Portugal, have to be under the Patriarchate of Moscow, which funnels money to Moscow – not to Metropolitan Vladimir.
What can Metr Vladimir do?
He could adopt the Latvian scenario, which is to get the Moldovan State to grant him ‘autocephaly’ (independence) and stop commemorating the Russian Patriarch, as Metropolitan Alexander, the leader of Russian Orthodox in Latvia, did. Now everybody, even in the first year of seminary, knows that this is uncanonical. Only a Mother-Church can grant autocephaly. Indeed, Metr Alexander’s policy in Latvia has proved to be disastrous.
A great many churches in Latvia are now empty. The Orthodox people, nearly all of whom are Russians, are boycotting a Church where their Russian Patriarch is not commemorated. Some Orthodox are travelling to church in Lithuania and Estonia to go to church. There they do commemorate the Russian Patriarch. The income of the Church in Latvia has dropped dramatically. Of the three priests I know who continued to commemorate the Russian Patriarch despite the instructions of Metr Alexander, one has stopped commemorating under pressure, a second has been suspended and the third continues for the moment.
Therefore, in the meantime, Metr Vladimir in Moldova has written a letter to the Russian Patriarch Kyrill asking for autocephaly. On top of that he has recently been travelling to parishes abroad, notably to England and Ireland to try and get Moldovan support for an Autocephalous Moldovan Orthodox Church. If he gets autocephaly (highly unlikely, it seems), then he can claim the Moldovan parishes abroad, which are at present under the Moscow Patriarchate’s Exarchate, which is centred in Paris. This would virtually wipe out that largely Moldovan-dependent Russian Exarchate in southern Europe and pose many questions for it in Switzerland, France, England and elsewhere.
The situation has not been helped by the racism that Moldovans have experienced on the part of Russians in Western Europe and the years-long corruption involving sums of Moldovan money funnelled to Moscow. That has already quite naturally made for bad feeling on the part of Moldovans towards Russians (‘I don’t like Romanians and only half-like Moldovans’, as one young and particularly tactful (!) Russian bishop said three years ago to an audience mainly of Romanians and Moldovans!)
Most likely of all, centralist Moscow will either ignore Metr Vladimir’s letter requesting autocephaly or reject it. If so, then Metr Vladimir has an alternative which Metr Alexander in Latvia does not have; that is, to join wholesale the Patriarchate of Romania and to become an Autonomous Church within that Patriarchate, which could give him the right to autonomous parishes in Western Europe. But what happens then to relations between Bucharest and Moscow? Especially when Moscow desperately needs Romanian support against Constantinople in Church matters in the Ukraine.