Ecumenism, Religious Freedom, and the "National Church" Controversy in Romania [*]

Article excerpt

The religious situation in Romania defies any brief or simple analysis. In the 1980's the religious communities, both the registered and the unregistered, found themselves in the midst of a complex and volatile world. Increased breathing space was a profound concern of the churches, but the communist state showed no signs that it would begin to respect its citizens' civil and religious rights. All the religious communities, including the Romanian Orthodox Church, were carefully monitored by the Securitate, which perceived them as potentially destabilizing forces for the socialist society. They had remained the only social structures that had not been fully integrated into the Romanian political system because of their basic ideological incompatibility. The extent to which some of the religious leaders collaborated with the communist state as well as the role that some of the international ecumenical agencies played, however, remains a very sensitive issue. [1]

Until December, 1989, Romania was under the control of a ruthless communist dictator in charge of a large, well-armed security force with an extensive informant system that penetrated every part of the society, an abysmal human-rights record, an economic crisis of catastrophic proportions, and a reign of terror in which human beings were the last priority in a nightmare world. [2] Laszlo Tokes, a 36-year-old minister of the Reformed Church in Timisoara and a rare outspoken critic of the Ceausescu tyranny, became the catalyst for the Romanian revolution.

The revolution brought about important changes within the Romanian society at large and for the religious communities in particular. Two of the most significant decisions made by the National Salvation Front, which initially served as the provisional government, were to relegalize the Greek Catholic Church, popularly known as the Uniates, which had been suppressed by the communist state and now found itself involved in a struggle to regain approximately 2,000 churches, and to maintain the legal status of the other fourteen religious communities that had been recognized under the Ceausescu regime and to permit them to have an amazing amount of freedom. For the first time in more than forty years it was now possible for the churches to govern themselves, to set their own agendas, to revise their structures, and to live out their own lives and articulate their own missions in the fullest way. They were totally unprepared for the unparalleled opportunities that had now arisen for their ministries and for their s ervice, although they had helped to pave the revolution's way by keeping alive the spirit of democracy and a belief in the innate dignity of every human being.[3] Unfortunately, nearly a decade after the upheaval of December, 1989, the ecumenical situation in Romania leaves much to be desired; new religious legislation has not been finalized, and there are even mounting fears that there could be restrictions on religious freedom in the new era.

After the revolution there was a tremendous feeling of euphoria, particularly among some of the minority churches. All the religious communities took steps to use this new freedom effectively in the light of their particular perspectives. There have been extensive restoration and building programs, new confessional schools and theological institutes with a large number of candidates for the priesthood, many new church periodicals and publications, opportunities on radio and television, and openings for ministries in all the state institutions. To be sure, there was more than a little discomfort among the minority churches because the Romanian Orthodox Church was rapidly beginning to fill all the openings. Religious believers who had been severely persecuted suddenly found themselves free to practice their faith openly without fear of reprisal. The state continued to provide subsidies for the salaries of pastors and administrators of the traditional churches, but these were not considered adequate, given the s erious economic problems. …