189132 1/28/2009 8:35 09BUCHAREST55 Embassy Bucharest UNCLASSIFIED R 280835Z JAN 09 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO SECSTATE WASHDC 9146 INFO EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE AMEMBASSY PARIS UNCLAS BUCHAREST 000055
EUR/CE FOR SCHEIBE, AMEMBASSY PARIS PASS TO UNESCO
E.O. 12958: N/A TAGS: PHUM, PGOV, PREL, RO SUBJECT: GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH STRUGGLES TO REGAIN RESTITUTED PROPERTIES
SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED -- NOT FOR INTERNET DISSEMINATION
1. (SBU) A Parliamentary committee will soon discuss a draft law which, if passed, will fundamentally alter the process of church restitution in Romania. Since the end of communism, the Romanian Greek Catholic Church, which represents less than ten percent of the population, has struggled with little success to regain the 2600 church properties confiscated during the communist era. Most of these were given to the Romanian Orthodox Church, to which 87 percent of Romanians claim membership. The proposed law stipulates that disputed properties -- most of which are Greek Catholic will be awarded to the majority denomination in the particular locality. This report elaborates upon the law under consideration and illustrates the ways in which the Romanian Orthodox church has resisted returning churches to their former owners. Of particular interest is the town of Ungheni, where the Orthodox Church is constructing a new building around an already-existing Greek Catholic church -- symbolic of the gloomy state of affairs for Greek Catholics. End Summary.
Bitter End to Long-Term Struggle?
2. (SBU) Twenty years after the 1989 Revolution, the Romanian Greek Catholic Church struggles to regain properties confiscated by the communist government. The much larger Romanian Orthodox Church, which received hundreds of Greek Catholic properties from the communists in exchange for tacit support of the regime, has destroyed many former Greek Catholic churches in order to avoid their restitution. Other properties remain standing but in Orthodox hands, even in cases where Romanian courts have ordered the churches returned to their former owners. Overall, the Greek Catholic Church has received fewer than 200 of the approximately 2600 properties that were confiscated since 1948, when the communists banned the Church.
3. (SBU) Following a tip, we learned that the Legal Committee of the Chamber of Deputies is scheduled to discuss this week a controversial draft law which, if implemented, would permanently leave most confiscated Greek Catholic properties in Orthodox hands. The proposed law states that in rural localities where both the Romanian Orthodox and Greek Catholic denominations have parishes, the sacred assets (i.e., church, priest's house and cemetery) will be the property of the majority denomination. As for other types of land reclaimed under Romania's property restitution laws, assets will be divided up in direct ratio to the number of believers for each denomination, according to the most recent census. Given that 87 percent of Romanians are Orthodox and less than ten percent Greek Catholic -- and that many of the confiscated properties are in rural areas where the numbers of Greek Orthodox believers have declined -- this law would essentially legalize the communist-era confiscation of Greek Catholic property and deprive the Greek Catholics of seeking restitution in Romanian courts.
4. (SBU) The draft law has a controversial past. It originally was submitted to Parliament in 2007. The Senate rejected it, and the Legal and Human Rights Committees of the Chamber of Deputies issued a report urging rejection as well. Nevertheless, in February 2008 the plenum of the Chamber decided unanimously to send the draft law to the two committees for reconsideration. It sat there until after the November elections, when one of the original drafters, Daniel Buda, became President of the Legal Committee. According to a Greek Catholic priest who closely follows the issue, Buda is keen on pushing the law through Parliament.
One Church Swallows Another
5. (SBU) To see how the issue has played out, Poloff and FSN recently visited the windswept, muddy Transylvanian village of Ungheni, where a 19th century Greek Catholic Church breathes its last gasp as the thick walls of a new Orthodox church surround it. The small Greek church, which was reportedly removed from the list of national historical monuments, is no longer visible to passers-by. Instead the traveler passing on the main road sees a enormous construction in progress, dominating the low-slung village. The huge building is the new Orthodox church which completely envelops the partially-intact Greek Catholic church inside -- which the Orthodox congregation is using until the new building is finished. The land immediately surrounding the site is empty.
6. (SBU) This dispute began during communism, when the Orthodox Church allegedly forged a document to register the former Greek Catholic church as its own. In 1998, construction began on the new building, initially without a permit. Despite the opposition of the Greek Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, with the support of the mayor, managed to obtain all the required permits. Construction continued until May 2008, when the old church steeple was demolished. Wide protest and a court ruling stopped the demolition at that point, but failed to stop the construction of the Orthodox Church.
7. (SBU) The conflict has generated tensions in Ungheni, historically Greek Catholic but now home to only 120 believers. The Greek Catholic priest has established a newly-constructed church about a mile from the disputed site. The Orthodox priest and mayor refused to attend its consecration, in September 2008. Moreover, several Greek Catholic churchgoers told us they won't send their children to the Greek Catholic priest,s private religion classes because the Orthodox priest, who teaches religion at the town's public school, intimidates Greek Catholic students by drawing crosses on their foreheads, embarrassing them in front of their classmates, and bad-mouthing their faith. Moreover, the Orthodox priest has barred the access of his Greek Catholic counterpart to the town cemetery, preventing the latter from burying the members of his congregation despite legal provisions which permit it.
A Pattern Of Obstinacy
8. (SBU) Contacts say that this situation is not unique; it is part of a pattern which, to varying degrees, has repeated itself in many localities where the Greek Catholic Church was reestablished after the fall of communism. The Orthodox Church's imaginative ways of avoiding restitution have included the destruction of former Greek Catholic churches under a broad range of pretexts, i.e., they were too old, on the verge of collapsing, or too small for the congregation. A common method has been to erect walls of a new church around the old church and to demolish the core when reaching the steeple level. Thus, since 1989, the Orthodox Church has destroyed the former Greek Catholic churches in Valea Izei, Bagau, Smig, Urca, Triteni, Valea Larga, Baisoara, Craiova, Ghirolt, Bont, Calarasi, Solona, Badon, and Homorod, many of them centuries-old historical monuments.
9. (SBU) With the Orthodox Church consistently refusing to return the churches willingly, the Greek Catholic Church has been forced to claim them in court, an endeavor that has had limited success due to lengthy delays and, in some cases, the courts, refusal to issue rulings. Even when the Greek Catholics have won lawsuits, the Orthodox Church has at times opposed the enforcement of the court rulings, even using force. In some places, such as Urgheni, the Greek Catholics have secured land and funding for new buildings; in others, such as Susteni, Greek Catholic congregations reportedly worship outside, exposed to the elements.
Comment: A Gloomy Forecast?
10. (SBU) Few Romanians are aware that what the Orthodox Church is doing to its sister church is unprecedented; even Ceausescu,s demolitions did not touch the former Greek Catholic churches. All post-communist governments have lacked the political will to fully restore the disputed properties. This is largely due to the influence of the Orthodox Church, to which 87 percent of Romanians claim allegiance. Greek Catholic sources sadly declared "they (i.e. Orthodox clergy) want to erase the very last traces of our existence in Transylvania." DCM and Polcouns raised our concerns with the draft restitution law with Romanian Senate President (and PSD head) Mircea Geoana, who took our objections on board and promised to discuss the issue with his counterpart in the Chamber of Deputies. We have also quietly brought the issue to the attention of the international media here in Romania. For digital photos of the Ungheni site mentioned in this report, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.