A place to pray
Only five per cent of the properties stolen from the Greek Catholic church by the Communists in 1948 have been returned, while the Orthodox religion fails to agree on a coherent policy of return
“He knew he was being followed by the Securitate,” says 27 year-old teacher Maria. “And when they stopped him and asked him who was coming to his mass, he answered 'ask them yourselves'.”
When Maria was little, her grandfather, a Greek-Catholic priest in Remetea, Mures County, kept mass in secret in a little room of his house. This was attended by a handful of loyal believers in the faith, who would pay homage to the traditions of their religion, despite the fact that members of the Intelligence Service persecuted the head of their local church.
In Targu-Mures after the Revolution there was still no consecrated ground for Maria to call her church. Much like the time before, she had to go to mass in all kinds of improvised chapels.
“First, at a priest's house, then in a hall at the local Water Administration Authority, then in a former dancing hall, then in a former shop,” she says.
After the Revolution, in Milas, a village in the same county, Greek-Catholics gathered for mass on Sundays in one of the village school rooms. “The Orthodox community kicked them out in 1994 because they were told that what they were doing was 'religious propaganda'. Now they keep mass in a former surgery,” adds Maria.
Some 100 km away in Sarmas, Mures County, there used to be two Greek-Catholic churches.
“During Communism, both of them were given to the Orthodox Church,” argues Simona, a 53-year old accountant. “Now the Orthodox use only one of them, keep the other one locked and later on they declared it a historical monument, to prevent it from being given back to the use of the Greek-Catholics.”
In 1948, all Greek-Catholic properties were stolen by the state, this Christian branch was declared illegal and all the Greek-Catholic bishops suffered torture and death in prison. Many believers converted to the official religion, but others continued to pray in private. Meanwhile the Government handed over to the Orthodox Church all the Greek-Catholic places of worship.
Now many sectors of the Orthodox faith refuse to give back this property. Since 1989 only 300 of the church's 2,600 properties were returned. The Orthodox church’s motivation is a series of bizarre and often contradictory reasons and compromises that argue against the principle of restitution.
This forces the Greek-Catholics to seek justice in the law courts and the European Union.
“After 15 years of talking in vain, we don't even know anymore who should grant us justice once and for all,” says the Greek-Catholic Metropolite Lucian.
Romania's progress on this issue is well documented by the European Commission in its annual reports on the country. “There is no legislation in place to deal with the restitution of churches,” says the last regular report.
American views are similar. The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 from the US Government states that the Romanian government has still not passed legislation to return the properties, while stating the Orthodox Church continues to oppose the return.
But a blasé attitude towards the rights of property tends to exist within the Orthodox Church.
“Both the Orthodox and the Greek-Catholic already have enough churches, so why should we continue this argument about restitution?” says Orthodox Archbishop Andrei Andreicut of Alba-Iulia.
A BRIEF HISTORY
In Romania, there are more than 18 million Orthodox, around one million Roman-Catholics and around 190,000 Greek-Catholics and 15 other officially recognised denominations, according to a 2002 census. The Greek-Catholic Church claims that these results are not accurate and that, in reality, there are around 790,000 members of its church.
This branch of Christianity began to exist in 1700 as an initiative of the Romanian Christians who wished to preserve their national identity, with the aid of the Vatican.
Greek-Catholic (or Uniate) Church of Romania looks to Rome by obeying the Pope, but follows the liturgical rite and calendar of the Orthodox Church. Before 1948, there were more than one and a half million Greek-Catholics in Romania, mostly in Transylvania. There are also Greek-Catholic communities in Ukraine and the former Czechoslovakia. Joseph Stalin set out to destroy the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine, calling it “non-national” and hence a dangerous subversive element and imposed the Russian Orthodox Church as the only official religion in the USSR.
In Romania, the Orthodox, the Roman-Catholic, the Protestant Churches of Transylvania, the Jewish community all had some of their buildings confiscated by the state. Yet, none of these above religions were prohibited and the state did not take away all of their places of worship.
However there was a different treatment for the Greek-Catholic Church. The Government prohibited the church from functioning by a 1948 Decree, a measure which was hailed by some of the prelates of the Orthodox Church as a “reunification” of the Romanian Church, under the pretext that when this branch of the Catholic Church started, many priests and church-goers passed from the Orthodox to the Catholic faith.
As a consequence, all the oppressed religion's churches were passed into the property of the Orthodox Church, while its schools, land and forests became the property of the state. The Government put all 12 Greek-Catholic bishops into prison and, as they refused to convert to Orthodoxy, were kept in incarceration, tortured and eventually all 12 died in jail.
Some still kept the faith alive by gathering in secret for mass in improvised chapels, facing the risk of arrest. In 1990, they gained their freedom.
A new Decree of April 1990 proclaimed that the state would return to the Greek-Catholics all their buildings, save the churches, that the Communists confiscated in 1948. According to April 2005's 'Memorandum to the Romanian State of the Greek-Catholics from Romania and from all over the world', after 16 years, only around five per cent of the initial properties had been returned.
Concerning the 2,030 churches and chapels, six cathedrals, plus monasteries and the vicar's church of Bucharest on 50 Strada Polona, the April 1990 Decree stated that their judiciary status should be settled by 'a dialogue' between the Orthodox and the Greek-Catholic Churches, taking into consideration the will of the believers' community. This effectively meant the Government could wash its hands of having to deal with the matter and has since left the two groups facing off without a negotiator.
Since 1990 the 'Commission for Dialogue' between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Greek-Catholic Church has gathered eight times, lastly in 2003. Since then, there has been virtually no progress.
“The stalemate in which the two churches find themselves now worries especially the [Orthodox] Metropolitan Synod of Transylvania, because problems appear especially in Transylvania,” says Father Constantin Stoica, Orthodox spokesman of the Romanian Patriarchy. “But the Romanian Greek-Catholics have not answered our invitation for the past two years now.”
So are the Catholics dragging their feet?
The church agrees that there is a breakdown in discussions.
“The Dialogue Commission created to solve the problem of church restitution first gathered two times per year, then once a year, then no times per year,” says Greek-Catholic Metropolite Lucian Muresan. “At the beginning our Church put forward its normal requests then, with every Dialogue Commission reunion, we kept on diminishing these requests.”
When such compromises still failed to gain results, Lucian Muresan looked to the law courts for a solution and took some of their demands to recover the churches to trial.
“But we have always been threatened by the Orthodox counterpart that they would stop all dialogue with us if we kept the trials open,” he adds.
“Yes, we do prefer solving the restitution problem through dialogue, but if dialogue is not effective of course we ask for justice to be done in tribunals.”
This is true, argues the Orthodox Church. “If they can be solved through dialogue, why should we take our problems to court?” says Orthodox Archbishop Andrei Andreicut of Alba-Iulia.
But the Greek-Catholics are not alone in their criticism of the results from the Dialogue Commission. According to the 2004 European Commission Regular Report, despite the fact that the dialogue committee proved ineffective, the courts have “generally refused to consider legal cases” seeking restitution of properties back to the church as long as the Joint Committee existed.
So, in many cases, the Greek-Catholics are denied property by both the Church and State.
Nevertheless, a Governmental Order of 13 August 2004 has now appeared, allowing free access to justice for restitution of the Greek-Catholic Churches.
WHAT DOES PROPERTY MEAN?
Theological difference rage over what the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches understand about the concept of property, Father Stoica of the Orthodox Patriarchy argues.
“The properties of the Catholic communities belong to the Church as an institution, hence to the Vatican, whereas the Orthodox churches belong to the Orthodox communities only,” he explains.
The 1948 Decree which canceled the identity of the Greek-Catholic Church as an institution also specifies that the places of worship, the vicarages, the lands and other properties belonging to a church “passed to the property of the believers' community,” says Father Stoica. Providing believers are Orthodox, of course.
During Communism, many Greek-Catholics converted to the Orthodox faith, mainly due to pressure from the state.
After 1990, when the Greek-Catholic Church was again officially recognised, some returned from the Orthodox faith to their original fold, though most did not. Either way, according to the Orthodox Church, if the community of believers from a certain town or village returned to the Greek-Catholic church “en masse”, the community automatically transfers the right of property back.
But there is no coherent strategy or even argument among the Orthodox faith. Not all of its priests have refused demands for the return of property. “In Banat, the Orthodox Metropolite Nicolae Corneanu said: the churches belonged to the Greek-Catholics, we have to give them back. And he gave them back. Around 50 churches, that is,” said Greek-Catholic Priest Nicolae Anusca, Metropolitan Counsellor.
But if the property returns to the Church, will there be anyone left to pray in it, questions Stoica. “Commonly in Transylvanian villages there is one church, 800 Orthodox families and four Greek-Catholic families who ask for the church back, because it used to be Greek-Catholic,” he says. “A solution for this kind of situation could be the construction of a new church for the Greek-Catholics, made with the aid of the Orthodox community.”
LOOKING OUT FOR JUSTICE
Frustrated by the lack of progress at home, many Greek-Catholic communities have turned away from trying to seek justice in Romania to European institutions, such as the High Commission for Human Rights in Strasbourg.
“The Alliance for the Defence of Human Rights-Helsinki Committee represents five such trials started by Greek-Catholic communities to receive properties back,” lawyer Adriana Dagalita of the committee says.
Cases of restitution made as result of dialogue, without the need of lawyers, do exist. Archbishop Andrei of Alba-Iulia mentions for example the Greek-Catholic Churches given back in villages in Alba and Mures County. Besides these, two other churches were given back to the Greek-Catholic community through judicial trial, in Rosia Montana and in Ocna Mures, both in Alba County.
In the latter case, the Orthodox community of Ocna Mures, which is in the minority, is gathering for mass in a former pastry-cook's bakery, while a new church is being built for them with state aid.
Moreover, according to Monsignor Jean-Claude Perisset, ambassador of the Vatican Embassy to Romania, in 2004, dialogue at a local level passed back five churches to the Greek-Catholic communities in the Cluj-Gherla area.
Another proposed solution for the disputes is alternate use of the same church by the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities. The Greek-Catholic Church has asked its Orthodox partners for at least this compromise solution in more than 200 cases. According to the information offered by the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs, 24 churches are now used alternatively.
But this does not seem to be a perfect solution.
“The Orthodox and the Greek-Catholics used to be one family before 1700. Now, since they are like a divorced couple, how can one ask a divorced man and woman to continue living in the same apartment?” asks Orthodox Archbishop Andrei of Alba-Iulia.
Nobody is asking the two communities to co-habit at the same time, but at different hours. “The alternative religious service schedule system has its limits, but it is very feasible in certain cases,” believes the Vatican Ambassador.
Other Greek-Catholic churches used by the Orthodox Church simply need to be given back, in the perspective of European Integration, according to Jean-Claude Perisset. As we went to press, the Romanian Orthodox Church has promised back the cathedrals of Oradea and Gherla and the church from Strada Polona.
But, on a recent visit to the church on Strada Polona in the afternoon of a weekday, all one can find is a lonely church on a large piece of land, a locked gate and a pack of hungry dogs barking viciously at passers-by. The house of God, it seems, is not open to everyone all the time.
OTHERS ALSO SUFFER
When communism began, the Roman-Catholic Church of Romania was not prohibited. “But they tried to choke this Church as well, mainly by closing the schools run by the Church”, Monsignor Jean-Claude Perisset, Ambassador of the Vatican to Romania tells The Diplomat.
According to the Vatican diplomat, many buildings such as schools, hospitals or libraries belonging to the Roman-Catholic Church before 1948 and nationalised during communism have still not been restituted. This includes, in Bucharest, the College of the Order of Jesus and Mary, now an apartment block and the College of the Friars of the Christian Schools, now belonging to the Bucharest Police. A 'Hospital of the Daughters of Charity' on Blvd Aviatorilor is the property, ironically, of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Transylvanian Protestant Churches have also suffered. The Unitarian Bishopry of Cluj has received 28 decisions of restitution in their favour, but all of them face problems with the present owners when it comes to applying the decision. The Unitarian Church says it faces opposition by the Cluj mayor Emil Boc, the same Democratic Party (PD) boss who preaches for fair restitution.
“The attitude of Boc is interesting. He talks up justice regarding restitution and the right of ownership, and yet when applying it, the Cluj City Hall attacks the restitution decision in court,” Mikol Lorecz, counsellor at the Unitarian Bishopry of Cluj tells The Diplomat. “When people live in the buildings we ask back we don't just throw the people onto the street,” he adds. “We are a church after all.”