Understanding Latent Religious Conflict: The Case of Frictions between the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Romania

By Orlich, Ileana Alexandra | East European Quarterly, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Understanding Latent Religious Conflict: The Case of Frictions between the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Romania


Orlich, Ileana Alexandra, East European Quarterly


For the past eighteen years, Romania has been engaged in a process of democratization and efforts to ensure religious freedom for minorities. Nevertheless, the 2007 Religious Freedom Report released by the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor shows that Romania continues to discriminate among religious groups and that the state has not properly addressed the ongoing conflict between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. (2) In spite of bitter and unresolved disputes that have occasionally erupted into violent and isolated clashes at the grassroots level, heightened hostility among church figures, and demonizing rhetoric at the institutional level, the conflict has not reached resolution.

Through the study of archives, books, articles, and interviews of both sides, this article aims to offer a better understanding of the conflict, assess the current situation and propose solutions.

A Historical Background

The Romanian Greek Catholic Church (formally known as the Romanian Church United with Rome) was initiated towards the end of the seventeenth century by the Austrian state which took over Transylvania and was looking for a way to strengthen its control through Catholicism. This area was dominated by a majority of Hungarian and Saxon (Sass) population, followers of reformed faiths and characterized by anti-Habsburg feelings. The Romanians were promised civic and judicial rights equal with the ones of the privileged minorities. (3)

A lot had been written about the material interest and financial reasons which might have determined the church union, while ignoring the spiritual context and the feelings that dominated the area at that time. In the seventeen century, the Romanian population in this region faced the civilizing pressure of the Calvinist population, which tried to convert not assimilate them. (4) Many of the writings from that period represent a reaction to this cultural policy. The equality and emancipation that were promised were not carried out and the country was often troubled by dramatic events and an attempt to return to Orthodoxy: Oprea Miclaus in 1690, Ioan Tirca during the Rakoczi rebellion 1703-1709, Visarion Sarai in 1740, and Sofronie from Cioara in 1760. (5) The union survived despite all these movements. The newly formed church developed slowly and arduously. An important moment was marked by Ioan Inocentiu MicuKlein who established Blaj as an Episcopal town and initiated the schooling system, strengthened the parishes, founded the political doctrine based on the illuminist ideas of that time, and set up the political struggle for the nation's emancipation. (6) Following Micu-Klein's exile, the progress of education and culture continued. In 1791, the Romanians in Transylvania wrote the first political program (Supplex Libellus Valachorum) in which the Greek Catholic Church played a really important role.

During the eighteenth century, the Greek Catholic Church in Romania continued to develop, as did the arguments with the Orthodox followers. After 1760, a Romanian Orthodox Bishopric was established in Ardeal. There were now two national churches, each with a specific doctrine and culture. (7) In time, the two churches drew closer and the Orthodox appropriated the idea of a modern Romanian nation promoted by the Greek Catholics. (8) In 1848, the two churches were fighting together and this is how they will continue in the future, until the official disbanding of the Greek Catholic Church in 1948. (9)

The inter-war period was characterized by a peaceful cohabitation, but also a fast rise of nationalism and Romanian chauvinism, which led to a movement called "Garda de Fier" (the Iron Guard). The movement soon started to attack the Greek Catholic Church and Western values, and went so far as to say that a genuine Romanian is necessarily an Orthodox and that the Greek Catholic Church should be disbanded. (10) These attitudes were part of a larger trend that rejected modern civilization, decadent democracy, and rational culture. …

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