William Yoder, Ph.D. Smolensk, 14 June 2013
Moldova between East and West
M o s c o w — May 25, 2012 was a dramatic time for evangelicals in the tiny country of Moldova. On that day, its parliament deputies were called on to decide whether their country would continue down the road towards integration in the European Union. Under strong EU pressure, the deputies then voted 53-48 to pass a «Law on Equal Opportunity for Women and Men». Much to the dismay of evangelicals, this law includes passages supporting the rights of sexual minorities. Only two deputies of the ruling alliance decided to break ranks and be unpragmatic: One of them was Valeriu Ghiletchi, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (the country’s second-largest party) and president of Moldova’s Baptist Union until 2009. Prior to the vote, EU representatives had implied that visa requirements for Moldovan citizens to enter the EU would be dropped only if this law was passed. (Neither Moldova nor Ukraine requires visas from Westerners for short-term visits – the visa barrier exists only for Easterners traveling westward.)
Conservative resentment was widespread: The West was seen as exploiting Moldova’s economic desperation to force a foreign political agenda onto the needy. Speaking before journalists, Vasile Filat, the outspoken pastor of the Baptist «Good News Church» in the capital city of Chisinau, concluded: «During the election campaign (of 2010), politicians promised that the legalisation on homosexual practice would not be passed. But they have not kept their word. The adoption of this law was a crime.»
The liberal agenda of a West seen as a morally destitute, economic saviour is one thorn in the flesh impeding Moldova’s Western integration. A second thorn involves the pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria, the thin, long rogue industrial state on the Dniester River claiming 15% of the country’s population and 12% of its territory. (The total population is 3,56 million with roughly 550,000 living in Transnistria.) Observers speak of a «frozen», long-term, geostrategic conflict, for Transnistria is home to 1.200 Russian troops. They guarantee that Moldova – much like Georgia – cannot become a full-fledged member of the EU.
Scrunched in between Romania in the West and the Ukrainian-Russian monolith in the East, Moldova is profoundly in-between. The country and its churches are also squeezed in between an East European past and a likely West European future.
Jim Overton, a Moscow-based Californian who just spent four years in Moldova, reports that the country is an ideal location for foreigners uncertain about their language skills. «Since Russia is a second language for most, there is greater patience for a foreign missionary’s frequent grammatical errors.» In Moldova, Romanian is generally written in Latin letters; yet in Transnistria the Cyrillic alphabet is still used. Seventy-one percent of the populace prefers to speak Moldovan, which is actually Romanian. But large Russian-, Ukrainian- and Gagauz-speaking minorities also exist. Its residents may have as many as four passports (Moldovan, Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian) – the Transnistrian pass is accepted by almost no one. As in Romania, the predominant religion is Eastern (Orthodoxy), but the language is Western. Overton reports on the dark humour of Moldovan friends who claimed their country was the only one in Europa without a will to exist. Many wish for their country to be dissolved into Romania or Russia.
But when a pro-Romanian segment attempted to join or at least close ranks with Romania, a six-month-long war with the largely ethnic-Russian minority in Transnistria erupted in March 1992. Moldova was part of the Romanian state from 1918 to 1940.
In the wake of the dramatic growth of the evangelical movement in Central Asian Mongolia, where membership grew from approximately four to 50.000 in the course of the last 23 years, Moldova may indeed come in second. In 1991, the region of Moldova hosted 11.000 Baptists worshipping in 130 congregations. Present numbers range as high as 21.000; the official numbers for 2012 list 19.562 Baptist members in 482 congregations. Twenty-five of these congregations use at least some Gagauz – the language of a Turkic minority in the south of the country. Overton reports that growth among Turkish-related peoples is rare and that the Gagauz-speaking groups are indeed the most rapidly growing segment of the Moldovan Baptist movement.
Moldovan Baptists have a strong vision for the restless Muslim republics of Central Asia and frequently send mission teams there. Between 45 and 50 Central Asian pastors annually spend time at «Chisinau College of Theology and Education». Other teams range as far afield as northern Siberia.
Overton, an expert on missions in the former USSR, maintains that «most new churches planted in Russia are the work of missionaries from Ukraine or Moldova. If a Russian congregation desires daughter churches, a common response is to invite someone from the outside to come in and take over the task.» Though the 74.000-member Russian Union is much larger, Overton claims: «I have never heard of any Russian mission teams going to Moldova. The Moldovans are a remarkable example worthy of admiration.» One sole congregation has in recent years sent 38 church workers to Russia. There is talk of Moldovans with Romanian visas or passports becoming involved in mission efforts in that country.
Despite being in dire economic straits, Overton believes that Moldovans allocate a greater portion of their giving to mission. «During the January 2013 holidays, Moldovan Baptists sent seven mission teams to Russia and Abkhazia alone. All transportation costs were covered by the Moldovans themselves. Neighbouring unions also like to send missionaries to Central Asia, but they expect the West to cover the costs.»
The young are very much involved among the Moldovan evangelicals. «School Without Walls», a successful educational programme sponsored by Chicago-based «Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries», is heavily directed towards the young. A number of youth ministries are involved in the Taekwondo sport: a form of martial arts developed in South Korea.
The relative success of Moldovan Baptism may well be due to their strong sense of unity. According to Overton, «in-between» Moldovans have all kinds of reasons to be split and fractured, yet the display much more unity than neighbouring unions. Only about 60% of the Baptist congregations worship in Romanian. «Moldovans have what Romanians don’t have: a deep, integrated sense of unity.» The Baptists in independent Transnistria simply form one of the Union’s nine regional districts.
It is reported that a third of all Baptists have left Moldova for good during the past 20 years. One source even claims that 15.000 Baptists have exited. Oleg Turlac, an instructor of theology at the College of Theology and Education, states that 1.000 members and five pastors from Chisinau’s major Bethel congregation have emigrated. If those numbers are added to the 19.000+ now residing in Moldova, then Baptist growth rates are truly phenomenal.
Fertile and warm Moldova, once one of the USSR’s most prosperous regions, now competes with Albania for the title of Europe’s poorest country. Moldova is infamous for the sale of body organs and major – primarily female – human trafficking. Dozens of thousands have fallen victim to this human slavery. Half of those still registered in the country are working elsewhere, usually illegally, in Europe or Asia. Consequently, roughly 30% of the country’s children are said to be social orphans forced to manage without their fathers or parents. Regular income is reported to cover only 30% of the basic costs for survival; subsistence, small-plot farming is required to make up the difference.
In Chisinau, Vladimir and Yulia Ubeyvolk have developed a highly-successful ministry among the socially-disadvantaged and victims of trafficking entitled «The Beginning of Life». Many of their activities are prophylactic and involve visiting schools to warn pupils of the dangers they will be facing.
Another significant social endeavour is very rare in Eastern Europe: a Baptist-run home for the elderly. «Tabitha House» is located in the village of Iabloana near Balti (or Beltz) in northern Moldova and has a staff of 13 with space for 40 residents.
The barriers to growth
Perhaps even more surprising than growth despite emigration is growth despite the existence of a barely-penetrable tradition. Moldovian missionaries were able to begin with a blank slate in 1990, but Moldovans were forced to come to terms with century-old tradition. In an article from 2004 entitled «Struggling to Overcome a Fortress Mentality and Emigration», the afore-mentioned Oleg Turlac wrote: «State prohibitions established in the 1960s became so ingrained in most congregations that they came to consider them as divine commandments. The church had to stop being just a club for formerly persecuted Christians. But many Christians refused to change, saying, ‘If people (really) want salvation, they will come to the church even without invitations.'»
The North American «Entrust Moldova» Initiative wrote that «the legalism that infested most evangelical churches during the reign of communism still holds sway in the minds of most members. Untrained men serving as pastors often scoff at calls to get into a training program.»
Some solutions to complex realities remain highly traditional. In a statement on homosexuality from May 2013, Vasile Filat protested against anti-discrimination training in schools. He soared far beyond the consensus of the world medical community when he described homosexuality as a learned addiction similar to substance abuse. «Like any addiction, it is learned and then once accepted by the mind, is tried out of curiosity, and then you are enslaved by it.» Homosexuality can always be remedied: «If you know gay people, it is important constantly to tell them that there is hope for their freedom from this addiction.» In closing he assured: «The gays are trying to provoke violence with their public manifestations.»
The political efforts of evangelicals have included fighting the acceptance of sexual minorities and the teaching of evolution in schools. Evangelical-Orthodox relations are very weak, but in the struggle against homosexuality and for family values, a consensus with Orthodox circles arises. An article from 19 May 2013 quoting Filat was entitled: «Orthodox and Baptists in Moldova have Spoken Out against the Toleration of a Gay Parade».
As in Ukraine, Moldova features at least five competing Orthodox denominations, the largest two being the «Moldovan Orthodox Church», which is allied with the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Romania-allied «Orthodox Church (or «Metropolis») of Bessarabia». This strengthens the sense of pluralism and results in increased freedom for Protestants. Weatherford/Texas-based «International Teaching Ministry» (ITM) reports from Moldova: «As we live in an Eastern Orthodox environment, we live in an enemy territory.» But that is not an official expression of Protestant leadership.
One of the more exotic examples of Western involvement involves Paul Hamilton, an Independent Baptist missionary from Canton/Ohio. In 2011 he wrote that he has been «faithfully serving the Lord and preaching the King James Bible there for the last 14 years». He added: «It is our desire through our printing ministry to print the King James Bible in the Romanian and Russian languages.» Would such an effort entail translating the Kings James text from 1611 directly into an antiquated form of Russian? His mission did not respond to queries.
Mainline, reputable US denominations have also been involved in Moldova. Washington D.C.’s major «National Presbyterian Church», a member of the «Presbyterian Church USA», has related closely for two decades to «Bethany Baptist Church» in Balti as well as Chisinau‘s College of Theology and Education. One of the college’s founders is Valeriu Ghiletchi.