Surprisingly Good Relations
The Baptists in Moldova and Transnistria
M o s c o w – Surprisingly, Baptist relations with the government are better in Transnistria – a narrow, 202-kilometre-long stretch of land which broke off from Moldova in 1990 – than in Moldova proper. Transnistria, squeezed in between Moldova and Ukraine, is a close ally of Russia. Valeriu Ghiletchi (Chisinau), President of the „Union of Christian-Evangelical Baptist Churches of Moldova“, explains: “Igor Smirnov, the President of Transnistria, writes letters to our leaders. When meetings of religious leaders take place, we are also invited. In a public meeting, Smirnov once praised Baptists as a good example.” Vladimir Voronin, the communist President of Moldova proper, has close ties with the Moscow Patriarchate.
New religious legislation passed in late 2007 further burdens the lives of Moldovan Protestants. Ghiletchi reports: „We still enjoy a lot of freedom. But this new law is not what we would have wanted. It grants the Orthodox a privileged status and expands the definition of proselytising. If it wants to, the state can now impose many restrictions on evangelism.”
Moldova has two large Orthodox churches: Its Russian Orthodox Church is a part of the Moscow Patriarchate; the Bessarabian Orthodox Church is allied with Romania. Though the Moscow Patriarchate hampers work of the Bessarabian church and its presence in Transnistria is nearly invisible, both churches regard themselves as responsible for the entire country. Baptists also refuse to recognise the political division; Baptist congregations in Transnistria simply form one of the Union's nine regional districts. The Baptist President for all of Moldova explains: „This one district is officially registered in Transnistria, but in the church constitution, we all remain together. It is very important that we stay one fraternal union.“ Crossing the border into Transnistria has become a common, daily event. Things only get complicated for Moldovan Baptists when they intend to remain in Transnistria for a number of days.
A bit over half of Moldova's Baptists attend Romanian-speaking congregations; 45% of them attend Russian-, Ukrainian- or Bulgarian-speaking ones. The President explains: „Our union and its leadership are multi-ethnic. That's our great strength even though this gives us headaches at times. As a minority in an Orthodox country, it remains vital that we stay united.“ He describes himself as a Romanian-speaking Moldovan. But he also speaks Russian and English and his family name is of Polish ancestry.
But perhaps Moldovan Baptists struggle most with themselves. More than 10.000 Baptists have emigrated to the West in the last 17 years. Valeriu Ghiletchi warns: „I foresee a crisis of leadership. It is difficult to recruit new leaders. The economy is very weak and the congregations are in no position to pay their pastors a salary.” The Baptist Union of Moldova represents 21.000 members gathered in 500 congregations and mission points. This includes 25 congregations with as many as 4.000 members in Transnistria. Moldovan Baptists have experienced phenomenal growth: During the Soviet era, the region of Transnistria had no more than three or four congregations.
Valeriu Ghiletchi is convinced that the political struggles between a former Soviet state and a breakaway region within it do not need to lead to war. Transnistria („Pridnestrovie“ in Russian) has only 17% of Moldova's population and 12% of its territory. Yet it was involved in a war with the remainder of Moldova from March until July 1992. But Ghiletchi assures: „I see no present danger of renewed military conflict between the two parts. We do not have the hateful inter-ethnic relations common for ex. in Georgia. Transnistria's population of 555.000 is almost equally divided between Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians; the total for all of Moldova is 3,3 million.
Ghiletchi, a Vice-President of the European Baptist Federation, adds that the Moldovan government, which strives for equally-good relations with both the East and the West, has restricted itself to cooperative relations with both NATO and the EU. Due to the fact that Transnistria is without international recognition, its citizens possess Moldovan, Ukrainian or Russian passports - or any combination thereof.
Head Baptist pastor in Transnistria is Peter Kuzminski (Bender).
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 03 December 2008
A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of RUECB-leadership. Release #08-55, 662 words.