Every week, priest Maxim Melinti can be found at the Church of the Virgin Mary in the Moldovan village of Ghidighici. This past weekend was no different, except Melinti was in front of the altar, not behind it.
Melinti was relegated to the role of spectator by the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which banned him indefinitely from officiating services as of June 21, alleging he was "promoting and encouraging sexual minorities and contributing to the development of the LGBT movement in the Republic of Moldova."
There's just one problem: He says he didn't do anything.
"In me, many have found the man who will understand them and treat them with respect. I do not judge anyone, I just help people get to Christ," he told reporters at a press conference on June 26.
"Unfortunately, there was no fair, transparent, public church judgment. The act was signed in my absence. All the press rang and asked me to comment, but it was the first time I was hearing about this. No clear accusations have been presented to me, which canons have been violated by me. I was not allowed to argue. Members of our community were not consulted," he added.
Nonetheless, Melinti said he was apologizing for the situation and asked the church for forgiveness.
Church officials did not immediately comment on whether Melinti's punishment would be rescinded.
The Orthodox Church is deeply rooted in Moldova, where an estimated 95 percent of the country's 3.6 million inhabitants regard themselves as members.
The church and its followers have long been against an expansion of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
'Not The President Of Gays'
In May, religious hard-liners in the capital, Chisinau, tried to crash a rally in support of the country's LGBT community but were fended off by police who deployed tear gas.
Participants in the march were guarded by police escorts after a similar rally the previous year -- which was criticized by President Igor Dodon, who said he "never promised to be the president of gays" – was halted by police to avert a confrontation with religious counterdemonstrators.
Melinti has often spoken publicly against the involvement of the church in politics but intensified his messages in May, when the church and the pro-Russian Dodon organized many events and festivals in support of the traditional family and against same sex-marriages.
Though he claims he said nothing in support of LGBT rights, Melinti appears to have finally crossed the line in the church's eyes by accepting an honor in May from Genderdoc-M, a group dedicated to the promotion of the LGBT community in Moldova.
Melinti's "activities were aimed at disturbing and overthrowing the good church order" through repeated actions promoting and encouraging sexual minorities, contributing to the development of the LGBT movement in the Republic of Moldova," the church decree stated.
He was involved "in the support of sodomite minorities and the promotion of non-traditional behavior and thus of outrageous sins, all contributing to the denigration of the image of the Orthodox Church in Moldova, as well as of the clergy, thus you are prevented from officiating at Church services without the right to offer blessings and to wear the pectoral cross from June 21, 2018, until full public repentance is brought," it added.
Even before the current clash, Melinti had been known as a progressive in Moldova's conservative Orthodox church.
He has brought his sermons to the people by broadcasting them live on Facebook. He regularly visits penitentiaries to hold services and consultations with prisoners. His church has rooms set up for mothers to bring their children so they don't have to miss divine services.
"If the Apostle Peter lived in the 21st century, he would certainly use Facebook to convey messages to the faithful. I do not see a problem with this, especially as things change and modernize. Why do all other religious confessions take advantage of the Internet, but we do not? My purpose is to bring these people closer to religion," Melinti told an interviewer in April.
Those efforts have brought a wave of support for the embattled priest.
Almost 400 of his parishioners have signed a petition asking church leaders to annul the decree.
"Father Maxim has always tried to do something good, both for the citizens of the village and for all Christians who come. We hope the decision is canceled," Olga Benderschi, a churchgoer in Ghidighici, was quoted by the news website Publika as saying.