On a frosty winter evening in 1994, Snejana announced her family, during a festive dinner, that she had been attending a Baptist church in Vulcănești for quite some time now and that she had found God in that particular house of prayer.
Complete silence. Astonishment. Uproar.
No one could understand how things have gotten so far. Their daughter, who had been eminent in school, who would constantly write screenplays for holidays or shows, who graduated college with flying colours, who used to have a very active lifestyle, was now …
“Everybody was scared. My family has always been proud of me. I used to be active and involved in various educational projects: I would dance well somewhere, I would recite wonderfully somewhere else, I would be the first in another activity, as well. Then, I became a believer and, they probably thought, I wouldn’t be the best anymore, I would no longer be somebody”, Snejana calmly recounts nowadays.
Snejana Diulgher was born in Vulcănești, the southernmost city in the Republic of Moldova. She describes her childhood as extremely beautiful and heart-warming, her family taking particularly good care of her.
“I was raised with great kindness. My parents and grandparents would always motivate me to be the first in class and they worked extremely hard on my personal development. If I had exams, no one would work normally that day. The family would organise parties to celebrate any of my accomplishments and successes.” And when something sad or disappointing used to happen to her, “the whole family would cry with me, but they would never punish or reprimand me.”
After graduating from the 11th grade, since Snejana was very good at math, the family advised her to pursue economics. She submitted her papers to the State University of Comrat, which had just been established that year of 1991. Snejana was admitted from the very first.
At the student dormitory, life was completely different from the life she used to live in the bosom of her family. “In the hostel, I could see people smoking, drinking, taking drugs and boys unscrupulously proposing obscene things to the girls. Slowly, being among those students, I realised that they were not that bad. Especially since I would very quickly find a common language with people.”
She also found a common language with her future husband. A tall, slightly unshaven guy, with darker, pale skin and dressed in a black leather overcoat.
Pondering on the period back then, the woman realises she was not ready for maturity. Before getting married, Snejana still saw some quirks in the behaviour of her future husband, but she overlooked them so as not to disappoint her family. “What would my parents say if I came home and tell them that I have failed in love?”
And she endured.
“After the wedding, he started to mock me even more. Soon after, he already had another woman. When I was pregnant, he beat me sore. From being the best student, I turned into a zombie. I was so ashamed and afraid not to disappoint my family that I didn’t tell anyone what was happening to me.”
The child was born with a head injury. The tall, darker, pale skin guy used to beat the young mother bloody even after she gave birth. When the little boy turned three months old, she packed her stuff and left, hitchhiking for 40 kilometres, from Aluatu, her husband’s native village, to her home in Vulcănești.
She was only 21 years old. Divorced, without having graduated from college and with a little child who needed special care. “I was alone, without work, without education, without a present, without a future. I have tried to arrange my life somehow, although, emotionally, it was very difficult for me back then.”
One evening, Snejana went to a tailor to order a coat for herself. While taking her measurements, he would ask her who her parents were, how she was doing, how she was feeling. Suddenly, the young woman burst into tears.
“I told him everything. The first time I told anyone what was happening to me. The tailor sat down next to me and said, ‘My daughter, you no longer need this coat now. You need Jesus Christ.’ He advised her to go home, find a Gospel, and read it chapter by chapter.
And Snejana did just that. She found a Gospel in her parents’ house given to her mother by an acquaintance. She began to read it from cover to cover. She could not stop reading. “I kept asking myself: How does this book know so much about me?”
Sometime after the visit to the tailor, around 1993, a Baptist prayer house opened in Vulcănești. The young mother assured that, at that time, she did not know which cult the house of prayer belonged to, but she fervently wanted to get there, because “I heard what the believers there said about God”.
One day, she summoned up the courage and went. “I put on my mother’s clothes so as not to be recognised. I was afraid someone would say to me: Look at this one! From the discotheque, she became a believer.”
When she left the church service, “I understood that I wanted to embrace the whole world. They drew me in because they were closer to Scripture. I saw more spirituality in them.”
According to the Population Census 2014, over 25,000 citizens of the Republic of Moldova declared themselves Baptists. They represent the largest religious cult after the Orthodox (2.5 million), followed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and (Seventh-day) Adventists.
Religious affiliations in the Republic of Moldova
The new path that Snejana found turned out to be quite difficult. No one in the family agreed with her “adherence” to the Baptist Gospel faith. After announcing, during a festive meal, that she had found God in the house of Baptists, everyone turned their backs on her. “I considered it as a transition period. After all, there has always been contempt toward the believers”, Snejana explained how she got over that point.
At first, her mother thought her daughter would just flirt a bit with the new faith, a step she ascribed to post-divorce stress. But, when she saw that she no longer used make-up, that she would regularly go to church, camouflaged in her clothes, she told her straight: “This is the last time I give you my coat”.
Snejana said nothing. She swallowed the bitter pill and went to church in tears. “Lord, what will I wear to church if it’s winter outside? Please take care of me!” she prayed.
At the end of the service, the priest approached her and asked her to linger a bit longer, as they had received humanitarian aid – second-hand clothes, including a box of overcoats, one of which was predestined for her.
She froze. She took that as a very clear sign. When she returned home, she said to her mother, “The Father I believe in, took care of me.”
Her sister, Irina, was 16 when she witnessed her older sister’s “transfer” to another faith. The young lady remembers that they were somehow raised without intense religious feelings, and when she would go to church and light candles, she did not necessarily feel God in her heart.
Respectively, “I cannot say that I was against her choice. [I just] I was against being drawn into these processes. I love my sister and accept her choice.”
Later on, both Irina and their mother joined the Baptist faith. “The fire in Snejana’s heart is huge. Gradually, this fire in her heart has spread to all her relatives. For instance, my father was a firm communist, but he also found God before he died”, says the woman.
Discrimination on grounds of religion or religious beliefs is mainly due to a lack of knowledge of the essence of other religions, the representatives of the Council for Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality noted in an official response.
“Everything that is unknown, makes us unconsciously oppose […]. Respectively, when the situation arises to make a decision on acceptance, conformity and adaptation according to a religion or religious beliefs that are foreign to us, unjustified situations of refusal arise, which degenerate into discriminatory situations.”
According to the study on perceptions and attitudes towards equality in the Republic of Moldova, a negative attitude of respondents can be noted towards people belonging to religious minorities. In their view, it is not normal for such groups to exist and society does not accept such people.
“Most often, a negative attitude, is a kind of defensive reaction to something unknown to us, to something that seems dangerous to us. Since there are not so many representatives of religious minorities in Moldova, many of us judge them not on the basis of personal experience, but on the basis of rumours, communication with other people, media reports and posts on social networks”, explains a member of the Equality Council, Evghenii Alexandrovici Goloșceapov.
Snejana’s abilities and quick-wittedness did not stay too long “under the dust”. The pastor noticed that the young woman was smart and spirited and suggested that she teach the young people at their Sunday school. Meanwhile, Snejana had also graduated from the University of Comrat. Subsequently, when a biblical institute was established in Taraclia, a town located 40 kilometres from Vulcănești, Snejana was invited to be a teacher there as well, after graduating the courses of the institution.
To make some money, the woman got a job as a secretary at the Vulcănești Court House. Things seemed to fall into place, until one day when she met the love of her life, “although I prayed to the Lord that I would never fall in love again.” She was at a refresher seminar organised by the biblical institute where she was teaching. “Ion was sitting there in a chair, with his blue eyes, and a gentle face”, the young woman remembers.
The two liked each other, but neither had the courage to take the first step. Until one day when, after a biblical seminar organised in Vulcănești, the decision was made for the group of students to spend the night at Snejana’s home. Ion was among them, as well. Then, the young woman asked the blue-eyed and extremely shy guy directly if he wanted them to be a couple. Ion, in turn, seemed to have his answer ready for a long time and was just waiting for that moment.
They moved to Ion’s native village – Cazaclia, Ceadîr-Lunga, 50 kilometres away from Vulcănești. Initially, they lived with Ion’s parents, then they bought an old house, made small improvements with the help of the inductive institute and moved into it.
Snejana had big plans: to continue to teach and open new Baptist evangelical churches in villages. Saving that, in the beginning, she had to face the reluctance of the villagers, who oftentimes made her feel like in that cold winter evening when she announced to her family that she had converted to a new faith, and they turned their backs on her.
First of all, the young woman recounts, they were nicknamed “stunds”, after the name given to the Germans who lived in southern Moldova until 1940. “They were Lutherans and differed from the Orthodox. They would always meet on the hour. People would check their watches by their gatherings.”
Snejana was deeply hurt by this nickname. “There was an instance at the polyclinic, when I walked in the door and everyone stared at me and whispered, wondering who I was. ‘She is the daughter of Stund Vanea!’ an old woman whispered.” And everybody walked away from her, the woman remembers.
In the last five years, the Council for Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality has received 20 complaints invoking the grounds of religion or religious beliefs.
These types of problems are less reported, compared to those related to age, sex, language or opinion, say the representatives of the Council. However, the cause of “under-reporting is not specific to this category of complaints, but common to all issues”, one explanation being that data subjects are not always aware that certain situations “constitute an act of discrimination” or consider that their problem is “one that is less important than the others he/she is faced with”.
However, after the young woman started learning English and was to become a teacher within a religious association, things took another turn. “Our neighbour found out about this and asked me to teach English to her niece. I accepted and, after a while, the little girl came to me with her friends. I was thinking: How come their parents allow them to?!.
“They would come after school. My husband even built a trampoline in the yard for them to play. The parents saw the progress and would also send the little ones to us to romp around, because they knew they would not learn bad things.”
Ana Percemlî, one of the mothers, confesses that her little boy enjoys going there. “The kids learn English and they are very satisfied. During summer, they also go to camps for free”, she praises Snejana.
Thus, the attitude of the locals in Cazaclia began to change little by little. They did not fear them as much, they no longer avoided them, but certain reservations toward the Baptist family still persisted.
In 2019, the house in which the couple had been receiving the children and working with them for seven years, turned out to be too small, and the ceiling began to show signs that it would not last long. Then they went to the school administration and asked them to allow them to rent two classes in which to teach English. To Snejana’s surprise, the school principal was open to collaboration.
“They taught courses such as Moral-Spiritual Education, English, Journalism, Computer Science,” specifies Alla Uzun, the school’s principal. “The groups of students were different – there were classes for juniors, classes for middle school.”
The administration’s agreement was the easiest part, Snejana recalls, because she was again faced with the community’s scepticism: some parents, including of children who used to come to Snejana’s home and occupy their free time, were outraged that they would teach within the gymnasium.
“During a meeting, I stepped out in front of the teachers and parents and asked them if I had ever taught their children bad things, if I insulted them or if I imposed our faith on them. And, they calmed down. Children are simple and sincere. Parents have always been more cautious”, Snejana explains.
The locals’ resistance was also confirmed by the principal Alla Uzun. “Yes, at first, the parents were very suspicious. I explained what the purpose was and, soon after, the results began to appear.”
During the period 2018-2020, the Promo-LEX Association identified 81 cases of hate speech, incitement to discrimination or other forms of manifestation of intolerance, which were based on grounds of religion or religious beliefs.
“This kind of speech was directed against immigrants, Catholics, Protestants or Muslims. Most of the time, the messages were based on stereotypes and prejudices and took the form of demonization and association with evil. In the media, intolerance towards representatives of other religious denominations has been promoted by their negative association with the ‘danger’ that can lead to the destruction of Christian Orthodox and traditional values,” explains Irina Corobcenco, an expert at Promo-LEX.
Professionally, Snejana was more and more fulfilled, but she still had a wish that she dreamt of with eyes wide open: “To open a social assistance centre for families and children, where we can help as many people in need as possible.” At that time, she would often go with her husband to Ceadîr-Lunga, to a social assistance centre established with the support of a German foundation, where they used to volunteer.
One day, she revealed the director there about her desire to have a children’s centre in Cazaclia. The director suggested to her to first draft a project, in which to indicate all the objectives, goals and tasks of the centre.
A few months later, the director called her and announced her, “Snejana, you were offered a house in Germany. A construction company has decided to offer you a house. You have to go, disassemble it and bring it, to install it here.”
Snejana almost lost her voice. It took her a while to understand what the carcass house she was offered was all about. “It is equipped with everything, but no one lives there. If people like how the house looks like – they order it. If not, when the deadline is up, the company contacts missions, churches and says such a house is available and, if you need it, we give it to you. It can be completely disassembled, and it comes in pieces – windows, doors…”.
A lot of people of different religions gathered and helped them assemble the new house. “Three trucks were brought from Germany.” The entire village buzzed around this project, the woman recalls.
Thus, on August 3rd, 2020, the house under the “You are special” social project, officially opened its doors. They also had a party on this occasion. “Now we are a social assistance centre, where we teach English and conduct various activities with children”, the woman proudly says.
Elena’s mother, Marina Tanasoglu, admits that their daughter goes to this centre, although they are Orthodox, but “not very often, because she has a lot of work to do at home and babysits her younger brother”.
Meanwhile, words reached Snejana’s ears that the priest in the village was not very pleased with the opening of the new centre and that he kept complaining to the school principal and the mayor, and was even collecting signatures for various petitions. “He was afraid that everybody would become a Baptist”, the woman believed.
A report by Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the UN Special Rapporteur, drafted following a mission in 2016, certified that, in general, “in the Republic of Moldova, peaceful inter-religious relations predominate, although some racial profile and religiously motivated attacks have been reported” and some leaders expressed concern about “the dominant position of the Orthodox Church in Moldova and its influence in determining morals and social values.”
Three years later, the situation seemed somewhat unchanged. “Minority religious groups, including the Muslim Community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches, reported fewer cases of verbal aggression than in previous years and no case of physical aggression […], but reported the persistence of cases of verbal abuse, especially in rural localities”, the report of the US State Department on religious freedom in the Republic of Moldova in 2019 noted.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the members of the Baptist and Pentecostal Churches said that there were cases where priests and other members of the Orthodox Church openly harassed the leaders or religious members of their communities. “Orthodox priests, often seen as people of authority in rural areas, instigated locals against minority religious groups and caused them to physically obstruct the religious activities of these groups”, the US State Department report also noted.
The priest refused to talk to us, merely stating that “the church does not have an opinion on this issue”.
In fact, some of the representatives of the Orthodox Church has often expressed a combative stance against what it calls “sectarians”: “Our Christians should not attend sectarian meetings, nor accept them in their homes, nor talk to them”, the Church having actually the responsibility of protecting Orthodox Christians from the “negative impact of sectarians”, as Metropolitan Vladimir suggests in his doctoral thesis in economics.
“Each with his/her own perspective, his/her own vision of the world”, comments Anatoli Uzun, the mayor of Cazaclia village, upon the situation. He says the Municipality cooperates with both cults, and he considers the centre opened by Snejana to be a good one, because it offers “facilities for children”.
“Discrimination was so painful and so unjustified, I don’t even know why”, Snejana sums up her struggle for social projects. “People who don’t even know us… I constantly try to invite people to us for any reason, so that they know what we do here. Nowadays we have the freedom of religion, nowadays people have the right to choose. I did not choose a religion at all. I chose God.”
Author– Nadejda Manastîrlî, SSAJ (School of Advanced Studies in Journalism), student
Co-author – Polina Cupcea
Photo – Nadejda Manastîrlî
Any person who is a victim of discrimination can submit a complaint to the Council for Prevention and Elimination of Discrimination and Ensuring Equality, in person at the headquarters or through the SUBMIT A COMPLAINT platform on the website https://egalitate.md/depune-o-plingere/.