The Restitution of Religious Property in Romania

Bogdan Mihai Radun

The restitution of religious property is part and parcel of privatization and the reintroduction of property rights in Romania. The starting point for understanding the context of property restitution policies is the Communist outlawing of private property. After the Second World War, privateproperty was gradually eliminated (K. Verdery, The Vanishing Hectare; Property and Value in Postsocialist Transylvania [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003]). In 1948, by Decree 176, Romania’s Communist regime confiscated all educational property owned by churches and denominations.

Communist Banishment of Greek Catholicism

The Romanian Orthodox Church was allowed to keep only church buildings. However, buildings belonging to the Greek Catholic Church were “given” to the Romanian Orthodox Church as a consequence of placing the latter in an illegal status. (Greek Catholicism was a forbidden practice, the institution was outlawed, and many priests were imprisoned.) The Communist regime tolerated the Romanian Orthodox Church, with which it initiated a strategy of collaboration. Roman Catholic and Protestant churches were in a way also accepted, but without any support from the state. In contrast, the Greek Catholic Church was outlawed because of its direct relationship with the Catholic West, its large number of Romanian adherents, and its claim to represent Romanian national identity. The Greek Catholic Church in Romania, a casualty of the Cold War, was portrayed as a subversive institution, whose effect on the population would work against Communism. Consequently, the Romanian state broke relations with the Holy See in July 1948. Several Romanian Communist leaders denounced the Vatican as a promoter of Western


The Privileged Position of Romanian Orthodoxy

In Romania, the Orthodox Church became an ally of the state, or in Vladimir Tismaneaunu’s words, it was “infiltrated” by the political class (V. Tismaneanu, D. Dobrincu, and C. Vasile, Final Report [Bucharest: Humanitas, 2007]. The post-Communist Romanian government commissioned Tismaneanu, a Romanian professor of political science at the University of Maryland, to prepare a report on Romanian Communism and its relationship to Romanian civil society.)

In exchange for Communist recognition of its dominant status within Romanian society, the Orthodox Church collaborated with the regime, including hosting political prisoners in its monasteries on their way to death, and torturing followers of other religions. A part of the Orthodox clergy became active members of the Communist secret police, including Patriarch Teoctist. Although press coverage detailed the affiliation of some members of the Romanian Orthodox Church with the secret police, the public did not believe it, or chose not to take back the trust it had invested in the church. Most Romanian Catholic and Protestant churches retained possession of their property, but the number of their adherents was much smaller than those of the Greek Catholic Church, which suddenly saw its members in the position of either having to abandon their religion or convert to Orthodoxy.

After the fall of Communism, a process began to return land that was previously nationalized. The main motivation behind this policy was the incapacity of the government to promote Communist-style, state-sponsored agriculture, because of its lack of profitability. In addition, the transition to democracy accentuated the need to reestablish private property (Verdery, Vanishing Hectare, 2003). Restitution was done according to case-bycase rulings. Slowly, policies of property restitution were formulated, but it took more than a decade for Romania to formally implement these policies. Therefore, the same case-by-case principle functioned in Greek Catholic Church property claims.

Public opinion was favorable to restitution to some extent (according to Romanian PublicOpinion Barometer in the early- and mid- 1990s) and the fairness of the initiative was saluted by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Union.

Discrimination against Greek Catholics

When the Greek Catholic Church voiced demands for restitution, however, the government seemed to be oblivious and did not respond. In the early 1990s, the government recognized that there might be a conflict between Orthodox and Greek  Catholic churches, but it did not acknowledge responsibility for resolving it. Rather, the government encouraged the two churches to engage in a dialogue to resolve their litigations (, 1993). Without

a clear policy, restitution of Greek Catholic property proceeded in two unsuccessful ways. First, one Romanian Orthodox regional leader recognized the right of the Greek Catholic Church to repossess what it owned before Communism, and thus agreed to give back some churches. Archbishop Corneanu of Timisoara also pledged support for friendly relations (R. Lazu, “Interculturalitate si interconfesionalitate: o alta perspectiva,” in Interculturalitate [2002]). In cities and villages with more than one church, and with at least one of them having previously been the property of the Greek Catholic Church, Corneanu generally attempted to give the church back, but was prevented from doing so by the Orthodox hierarchy in Bucharest. In situations where only one church existed, Corneanu proposed that both confessions worship in the same church, but at different times. This principle was also adopted in other areas. However, the use of churches by Greek Catholics continues to be perceived as illegitimate by the Orthodox Church, which can block Greek Catholic worship at any time (Ibid.)

Second, Greek Catholics mobilized and took over some of their former churches by force, as in the case of Cluj-Napoca and Reghin (D. Ionescu, “The Orthodox/Uniate Conflict,” RFL/ RL Research Institute Report on Eastern Europe 2 [No. 31, 1991], 29-34).

In the former city, the proportion of Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches is roughly equal, but the Orthodox still had full control of both Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches. Greek Catholics held their services in a public square. During the liberal government of 1996-2000, state officials and Greek Catholic hierarchs collaborated, allowing Greek Catholics to retake control of churches by force. In these cases, forceful occupation of one Orthodox Church by Greek Catholics triggered protest marches organized by the Orthodox Church. According to the 1992 Romanian census, the Greek Catholic Church had just over 200,000 believers, or one percent of the country’s population. It also had two cathedrals and 212 churches, with only a minority being in use. In proportion to the number of Greek Catholic adherents, the Orthodox Church argued that it had sufficient places of worship.

Property Restitution with an Eye on European Opinion

Throughout the 1990s the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe repeatedly asked the Romanian state to ensure freedom of religion (Lazu, “Interculturalitate”). This external intervention was triggered by both the property conflict and the harsh reaction of the Romanian Orthodox Church to Protestant proselytism. The latter became widespread in post- Communist Romania, with the Orthodox Church resenting the loss of believers. Given these increasingly contentious conditions, the issue of solving the  rthodox-Greek Catholic property conflict became a priority of the Romanian government in the late 1990s.

The government wanted to demonstrate that democracy was working in Romania, and solving property conflicts became one way to demonstrate to international funders the success of democratization. In 2002 the government stated that all church property confiscated by the Communist regime would be returned, except those churches and their possessions that were in the hands of the Orthodox Church at the time of the 1948 law prescribing church confiscations.

The Romanian Orthodox Position

The Romanian Orthodox Church argues that Greek Catholic churches were not confiscated by the Romanian Communist state, but rather, were given directly to the Orthodox Church. Thus, the claim to restore property rights over previously confiscated goods should not apply (Candela Moldovei, 1997, cultural/revista/revista/news.php). Additionally, many Greek Catholic adherents converted to Orthodoxy during Communism, and so did some of their priests. According to Orthodox doctrine, churches do not belong either to the state or the church, but to the community of adherents who are now Orthodox themselves (Ibid.). However, Orthodox ignore the fact that significant numbers of converts to Orthodoxy chose to go back to Greek Catholicism after 1989. Today, these people see themselves in a position of not having a place to worship (Lazu, “Interculturalitate”).

The Greek Catholic Position

The Greek Catholic argument is that the churches were built by the Catholic Church and were taken away by the Communist regime, so the Catholic Church is entitled to full restoration of its property. The pope made an appeal to the Romanian government to restore Greek Orthodox property (restitutio in integrum), but the Romanian government denied his claim (Catholica, 2001,

The Romanian Government Position: In Flux

The Romanian government asserted the need to restore property rights but also expressed reluctance about how this could be done. In 2001 Prime Minister Nastase affirmed that the government might draft a law regarding restoration of property rights that would affect both churches and express a neutral point of view (, 2002). However, Romanian President Ion Iliescu stated that because many Greek Catholics converted to Orthodoxy, there was no need for restitution in integrum (Ibid.). He also cited problematic cases of communities in which one churchexisted but adherents of both confessions claimed the property.

State support for the Orthodox Church in these property conflicts oscillated between obvious privileging when the government was composed of former Communist leaders (1989- 1996, 2000-2004) and attempts at restitutio in integrum during the liberal government of 1996-2000. However, even during the latter, the parliament did not succeed in passing a law returning Greek Catholic churches. Even in the few years when the courts granted the Greek-Catholic Church full ownership over its places of worship, the state refused to enforce the decision (Ibid.). Finally, in 2005, the Romanian state started to enforce the law on the restitution of property to the Greek Catholic Church, and consequently, the latter now has access to most of its former places of worship. Members of the Romanian Orthodox Church, especially Metropolitan Bartolomeu of Cluj, have criticized this government policy, advocating the need to return property according to the number of adherents in a given locale and not according to restitutio in integrum.

Church Positions Contrasted

The Roman Catholic Church and Protestant denominations managed to reclaim property from the state. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church did not offer to help its Greek Catholic sister church throughout the process of property restitution. On the one hand, Greek Catholics assert property rights over their possessions at the beginning of Communism. On the other hand, Romanian Orthodox make reference to the moment of the creation of the Uniate Church, and how it took away Orthodox property at that point. F

Edited excerpts published with permission from Bogdan Mihai Radu, “Traditional Believers and Democratic Citizens, A Contextualized Analysis of the Effects of Religion on Support for Democracy in East Central Europe,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine, 2007.

Editor’s note: An abstract of Dr. Radu’s dissertation follows: The author analyzes the  ffects of religious variables on democratic values in Central and Eastern Europe, based on statistical data drawn from World Values Surveys. In contrast to much of the literature,  no direct correlation could be identified between religious and political values. Thus, in various countries, some Orthodox believers supported and some opposed democratization. Varied historical contexts seemed to best account for divergent opinions among coreligionists.

Bogdan Mihai Radu is a junior lecturer in the department of political science, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania.