Culture clash in Moldova - Orthodox fundamentalism rallies to attack the west
Alex Ulmanu / 2013-12-17
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As the Republic of Moldova begins the road to joining the EU, we interview a leading religious fundamentalist with a violent voice against the rise of western values

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Matrona Nikonova was born in 1881 in Russia. She was blind, but could see the future, so they say. 

According to popular belief, she had a birthmark in the shape of a cross on her chest and when she was baptized perfumed smoke rose above her body.

It is said that she, as a preacher, foresaw the coming of the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet Union's entry into World War Two. 

In Moscow, where she moved in 1925 and where the Soviet government persecuted those involved in religious activities, she would always flee the apartments she lived in just the day before the communist militia came to arrest her.

She died in 1952, aged 71. 

The Russian Orthodox Church ordained her a saint in 1999.

Russian Christians call her Matrona of Moscow or the Blessed Mother Matrona.

She had taught people to always wear the cross and never to judge others. 

"Each sheep will hang from its own tail. What is your business with other people's tails?" she reportedly said.

Now an organization bearing her name is one of the most vocal - and sometimes aggressive - factions of the Orthodox Church against what it considers threats to the true religion - such as gays, Jews and microchips.

In the Republic of Moldova, a poor ex-Soviet state at the centre of a war of influence between Russia and Romania, the 'Blessed Mother Matrona' organization is home to a fervent religious community built around Anatolie Cibric, the priest at the St. Paraschiva church in the capital, Chisinau.  

 

 



A charismatic preacher, he speaks against Westernization and criticizes the rulers of his own church for being too tolerant toward modern life.

In an interview, he told me that he was proud to be called an Orthodox fundamentalist. And he openly spoke with admiration of the Legion of the Archangel Michael, the fascist movement also known as The Iron Guard, which played a major role in Romania's political and social life from the 1920s to the 1940s. 

The current Republic of Moldova, except for the area known as Transnistria, had been part of Romania for most of that period.

It was briefly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, before German-led forces swept through Romania to the Ukraine in 1941.

The 'Legionnaires' were ultra-nationalist and strongly anti-Jewish. They promoted Orthodox Christianity as a vital national value. They differed in their religious fervor from other fascist movements in Europe and rejected capitalism as overly materialistic.

The Legion numbered many priests among its ranks and some of the ideas promoted by Cibric's organization are similar to this fascist movement, including the anti-Jewish sentiment and the rejection of capitalism and 'Western' values such as tolerance toward sexual and religious minorities.

"Tolerance means to fail to resist to evil and harm," father Cibric says. "In medical terms, tolerance means not fighting back."

All those who use this term are retarded, sick and ignorant, he adds. 

"The Devil laughs at the entire mankind: 'tolerance, tolerance.' That is - 'Don't fight back.'"

The Devil is a constant presence in Cibric's discourse. The ‘evil one’ can be found in microchips, Government-issued ID numbers, books explaining sexual differences to children, taxation, bankers, vaccines, the promotion of gay rights, liberal plays such as 'The Vagina Monologues' and films like 'The Da Vinci Code.' 

The 'Matrona' organization has protested against all of these. Here is a timeline presenting the most important actions in the life of the group:

And, with the Devil being so close, the apocalypse cannot be far away. 

"It's already passed through our door," Cibric says. The signs are everywhere. There is a global plot, orchestrated by Jews, who run everything now, to weaken and corrupt the human race so that when the time comes we won't be able to call for God and save ourselves.

You have to be stupid not to see this, according to the priest.

At first glance, there is favorable terrain for his ideas to spread. In the little republic jammed between Romania and Ukraine, over 90 per cent of citizens declare themselves Christian Orthodox. 

This, in a country where religious people had been persecuted during the Soviet and Nazi periods.

When I first visited Chisinau, the capital, in the 1990s, many churches were still abandoned and had blackened walls. 

The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity, built in the 1830s, stands next to Chisinau's main square. It is the most important cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Republic of Moldova.

Today most Christians are split between two main religious organizations, both Christian Orthodox, but affiliated to different Orthodox Churches: the Metropolitan Bishopric of Chisinau and the entire Moldova is a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church and remains the largest Christian organization in the country. 

The younger Metropolitan Bishopric of Bessarabia (the historic Romanian name of Moldova, without including Transnistria) was established by the Romanian Orthodox Church.

With practically no doctrinal differences, the split is more political than anything else, according to Petre Guran, a researcher with the Institute for South-East European Studies in the Romanian Academy.

More than 20 years after declaring its independence, the Republic of Moldova is still torn between East and West. 

Moscow sees its influence threatened by the drive for closer ties with the European Union, promoted by the current government of Moldova, which aspires toward eventual integration. 

Romania, on the other hand, a member of the European Union, would like to see its own influence grow. It has played a major role in the signing of the association treaty between the EU and Moldova, and Romania's president Traian Basescu has called for the unification of the two countries to become a national priority.

To some extent, this is a battle between the old and the new. This is symbolically apparent when it comes to the religious calendar. The Bishopric of Moldova, like its parent organization, the Russian Orthodox Church, follows the Old Style, where Christmas falls on 7 January. 

The Bishopric of Bessarabia is also an Old Style church, although the rest of the Romanian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 25 December.

But beyond such formal differences, advocates for closer ties with the West argue that the European Union means social and economic progress, while some of those who are against point out that Europe equals moral and economic distress.

There is a moral crisis in the European Union, they argue, and capitalism is failing - so people should stick to their tradition.

These are also some of the arguments raised by father Cibric. His association, 'The Blessed Mother Matrona', fights against some of the basic values of Western society.

According to its raison d'etre, the association is ‘against globalization, that is, for defending the faith and the people, rejecting the laws imposed on the country by the global ruling system.’

The organization ‘fights for the right to live without the personal ID number, which is compulsory for every person.’ It also pledges to ‘reveal and fight against heretic currents and deeds.’

If this sounds familiar, it is because we have become accustomed to identify such attitudes with Islamic fundamentalism, which labels modern Western values as heresy.

The West is falling, Cibric tells me. He points out that people in France are suffering from hunger, and that the USA is on the brink of civil war - and to prove it he shows me filmed interviews with conspiracy theorists and clips showing the US military readying millions of coffins.

He watches such videos on YouTube. He doesn't understand English, but the clips are dubbed or subtitled in Russian.

Today you can use technology like the Internet to be informed about what's really happening in the world, Cibric says. 

I point out to him that he also says technology is the Devil's tool, but he does not think this is a contradiction.

He argues that the Jews are running the world, but at the same time complains about the growing influence of Islam. According to Cibric, countries like France and the Netherlands have not only given up on their Christianity, but are becoming Muslim territories.

And it's not only happening in the rotten West - all the Asians from the former Soviet Union have now moved to Moscow and Muslims are practically running the show in the Russian capital, he says. 

His organization has opposed the legalization of the Islamic League in Moldova. Muslims should never be allowed to build mosques in a Christian country, Cibric says. 

In spite of the apparent popularity of Orthodox Christianity, 'Matrona' represents a minor group in the Republic of Moldova, says Petre Guran. 

In countries like Moldova, Romania, and others in this region of Eastern Europe, where 80 to 90 per cent or more of the population declare themselves Christian Orthodox, those who go to church regularly are in much lower numbers, according to Guran. 

He estimates that only ten to 20 per cent of Orthodox Christians practice their faith conscientiously. From those practicing Christians, only about ten to 20 per cent are radicals, Guran adds. This means very few.

However in Moldova, 'Matrona' is a visible and sometimes effective group.

Cibric and his followers managed to force a Chisinau theatre to stop a staging of 'The Vagina Monologues,' which the organization labels immoral and anti-Christian.

They delayed the broadcast of a film on gay rights on public television, claiming it promoted immoral behavior

They disrupted a celebration of Hanukkah because it thought it was inappropriate for the small Jewish community to install a menorah in the Great National Assembly Square, the heart of an Orthodox country. 

On the other hand, Chisinau used to be largely a Jewish town. Toward the end of the 19th century, about half of the city’s population was Jewish. According to estimates from the Moldovan embassy in Israel, there are now only 20-25,000 Jews living in Moldova.

Petre Guran of the Institute for South-East European Studies says the 'Matrona' phenomenon is not exclusive to the Republic of Moldova. Similar groups are present in all the Orthodox Christian countries.

It is "a form of religious radicalism combined with politics, which openly assumes a political message," says Guran. In this case, he adds, we can see the Orthodox values being systematically opposed to Western values.

Intellectually, these people are still living in the years right after 1204, Guran says, referring to the sacking of the Christian Orthodox city of Constantinople by Western European Crusaders, following the East-West Schism of 1054, when Christianity separated into what became the Catholic and the Orthodox churches. 

According to Guran, there is a faction of the Orthodox Church that is still under the emotional shock of a Christian power conquering and spoiling another Christian power.

This is the oldest layer in the historic opposition to the West, Guran says. Over this layer, he explains, there are various other layers and political interests. In some cases, Orthodoxy becomes a mark of ethnic and national identity, and ‘the opposition between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is used as a barrier in the way of any form of political union, or at least of political dialog.’

There have been voices in Moldova that have accused the 'Blessed Mother Matrona' organization of serving the interests of the communist party, which dominated Moldovan politics until 2009, although father Cibric and his followers have criticized all the political groups, including the communists.

Cibric has also been a critic of the leaders of his own church. 

"The Patriarchs are cowards," he tells me, referring to the heads of the Russian and Romanian Orthodox churches. "They are not real fathers (of their churches), as a father should defend his family."

Cibric speaks against 'ecumenism' --the current that attempts to reunite the world's Christian churches -- just as he speaks against globalization. Both the Russian and the Romanian churches promote ecumenism, and this is pure heresy, he says. Instead, they should stand for the values of the true faith. Which he does, by opposing the modern values of the European Union.

According to a group of clerics within his church, he is doing it the wrong way, though. In October 2010, professors and priests from several churches affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church in Moldova signed a note that describes Cibric's organization as "aggressive, intolerant and prone to hooliganism." His actions are against the true spirit of Christianity, the note argued.

Cibric answers that one should fight as long as he can, with the weapons that he has. All the Christian heroes beloved by God defended the true faith with their sword, he tells me. In his opinion, his organization has never actually started a conflict.

"First they come with their new laws that they try to impose on us," he says, "and then they call us violent because we stand up to them."

 

Interactive elements by Monica Ulmanu.

Thanks to Chisinau-based journalist Maxim Pulber, who acted as a consultant for this story. 

Alex Ulmanu is reporting on religion as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).

 

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