Romanian Orthodox Church welcomes Moldovan priests wanting to join

By Alexander Tanas

CHISINAU (Reuters) - Romania's Orthodox Church says it will keep welcoming priests bolting from Moldova's Russian-linked Orthodox Church to join a growing rival body subordinate to Bucharest as it believes the ex-Soviet state's future lies with Europe.

Disputes within Moldova's Orthodox community, which makes up 90% of the population in the country lying between Ukraine and Romania, are heating up just over a week before Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter.

But parishioners are divided between two churches: the Moldova Metropolis, subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Metropolis of Bessarabia, which reports to the Romanian Church. Neither has autocephaly, or full independence.

More than 60 priests from the Moscow-linked church have switched sides since last year, with the Romanian-linked church increasingly associated with the drive by Moldova's pro-European authorities to join the European Union by 2030.

The much larger Russia-linked church last year chose to retain its links to Moscow after acknowledging that the Russian Orthodox Church's enthusiastic support for the Kremlin's war in Ukraine was denting its popularity.

"The phenomenon of departures from the Moldova Metropolis - - directly linked to the Moscow Patriarchate - will continue to spread," Vasile Banescu, press secretary of the Romanian Orthodox Church, told U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

"This phenomenon foreshadows a thaw in the church. The priests understand that, in essence, Moldova's future is with Europe, with Romania."

The Romanian church, he said, would continue to take in Moldovan priests and open new churches.

The tensions reflect Moldova's turbulent history, with most of its current territory having belonged at various times in the past to the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union and "Greater Romania."

Although Romanian is the sole state language, Russian is widely spoken throughout much of the country.

President Maia Sandu, who has called a referendum on EU membership for later this year, has carefully steered clear of the disputes, upholding the separation of church and state.

The Moldova Metropolis has defrocked priests who have left to join the rival church.

Its head issued an impassioned plea on Wednesday for them to return to its ranks, urging them to "consider their mistakes, repent deeply and return to the bosom of the church."

The rival Bessarabia Church said in response it could not understand just what the Moscow-linked church wanted.

"They strip them of their clerical duties and then bring them back," Bessarabia Church press secretary Constantin Olaru told a television interviewer on Thursday. "We cannot explain what they are trying to achieve and what their final aim is."

(Reporting by Alexander Tanas in Chisinau, Moldova; Editing by Ron Popeski and Matthew Lewis)