Moldova president says church must work for European integration

FILE PHOTO: 78th UNGA General Debate at UN HQ in New York

(This Oct 30. story has been corrected to reflect that the president's comments were made on Thursday, not Monday, and adds the dropped name of the former court head, in paragraph 14)

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Moldova's president waded carefully on Thursday into a row pitting the ex-Soviet state's two rival Orthodox churches against each other over Russian influence, saying churches should facilitate the country's main aim of European integration.

Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has for more than 150 years been a pawn in struggles between Moscow and Bucharest as part of either the Russian empire or Greater Romania. And that is the crux of the church row.

Some 92% of Moldova's 2.5 million residents are Orthodox Christians. But neither church is autocephalous, or independent: one answers to Moscow, the other to Bucharest.

And a letter from the head of the largest Orthodox Church to its Russian parent church, made public last week, complained that the link with Moscow - and the invasion of Ukraine - was making it unpopular among parishioners.

"The church must operate according to the interests of the state and its citizens," Pro-European President Maia Sandu told Vocea Basarabiei television.

"The state cannot interfere in church affairs. I believe that everyone should work towards achieving the country's main goal. And that today means peace and European integration."

In his letter last week to the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Vladimir wrote: "The Moldova Metropolis finds itself on the periphery of Moldovan society because of its links with the Russian Orthodox Church."

Vladimir, using the formal name for his church, said it was increasingly unpopular because of the "regional context", an oblique reference to the Russian church's full-on support for the war in Ukraine.

And Russia had not understood, he said, that Moldova's unification with Romania, was "inevitable".

Vladimir last week also defrocked six priests who had left his church to join its rival, the Metropolis of Bessarabia, which commands 25 percent of dioceses in the country.

The rival church denounced that move as "absurd and ridiculous" and accused its rival of backing the "Russian world" notion of a Russian sphere of influence beyond its borders.

Moldovans are long used to coming under the cultural influence of Russia and Romania. Many use both languages interchangeably - though the notion of joining Romania in a political union has been a remote prospect for many years.

But the war in Ukraine worries many. Sandu has denounced the conflict, accused Moscow of plotting to oust her and thrown her weight before a drive to secure European Union membership.

The former head of Moldova's Constitutional Court, Alexandru Tanase, said the criticism of Moscow was part of a bid by the Russia-linked church to secure autocephaly. A Kyiv-based church did the same in post-Soviet Ukraine, but that took more than 25 years.

"The Moldovan Orthodox Church understands that as long as it remains a part of the Russian Orthodox Church, it will lose influence and risk remaining on the periphery," he told Vocea Basarabiei last week. "The Russian church is not really a church, but a propaganda and ideological organ of the Kremlin."

(Editing by Ron Popeski; Editing by David Gregorio)