Romania Threatens To Take Church Property

Bill Could Repeat Stalin’s Expropriation

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By Chiara Santomiero

BUCHAREST, Romania, FEB. 17, 2009 ( Sixty years after it happened in Communist times, the Catholic Church in Romania is again afraid that the state will expropriate their property if a controversial bill is approved.

Bishop Virgil Bercea of the Byzantine Eparchy of Oradea Mare explained, “If this bill is approved, what happened in 1948 will be repeated, when Stalin denied the Church in Romania united with Rome, Greek [Byzantine] Catholic, the right to exist, subtracting goods and imprisoning their bishops.”

The prelate, who is also responsible for the laity commission of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Romania, told ZENIT of his concern about the bill. He explained that this bill about the legal regulations of real estate belonging to the Orthodox and Byzantine faiths in Romania was discussed from Jan. 27-29 in the juridical committee of the Romanian Chamber of Deputies.

The bill provides, among other things, that “in rural areas, where there are parish communities of both confessions, and monasteries, […] the sacred goods — places of worship, parish houses, cemetery and land belonging to them — will be owned by the majority religion.”

“Inevitably,” Bishop Bercea pointed out, “this rule will harm us, as the Greek Catholic Church has always been a minority, but extremely vital in the life of the country.”

Letter of appeal

Archbishop Lucian Muresan, the major archbishop of the Romanian Church united to Rome, sent a letter to the president and the prime minister of Romania to express “dismay” and to request the withdrawal of a bill that would “cause moral and material damage to our Church and violate the constitutional rights of the Greek Catholic faithful.”

The letter reads: “The Romanian state, the successor to the Communist state of 1948, has the moral obligation to restore to the Church everything that has been confiscated. We ask only what belongs to us according to the law, in accordance with the Constitution of Romania and international laws.”

“In Oradea,” Bishop Bercea said, “We had 220 churches; 19 have been returned to us.” He added, “Often, we simply ask to be able to celebrate in the same building of worship at different times from the Orthodox.”

Stalin seized the assets of the Byzantine Church, which became the property of the Orthodox Church. At this time, priests, religious and bishops were considered outlaws, and many suffered imprisonment or even martyrdom.

Prayer for harmony

The bishop explained that there are cases in some localities where there are two churches, originally an Orthodox and a Byzantine Catholic. He said, “The Orthodox celebrate one Sunday in one church and the other Sunday in the other, leaving one closed alternately, while we are obliged to celebrate in homes, in schools or even outdoors.”

The bishop remarked on the “pity” of this threatening situation “on the part of the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church, which is not shared by all the bishops, as there are places where [the two Churches] live in harmony and where the Orthodox Church, if it has not returned all property that belonged to the Greek-Catholic Church, at least [returned] that which was needed.”

It is also an attitude, he said, that “does not spread among people, because here the families are often constituted by Orthodox and Greek Catholics, as well as Romanians, Germans and Hungarians.”

“We are conscious,” concludes Bishop Bercea, “of being too small to be able to prevent the adoption of the law. We put our efforts and that of those who want to support us into prayer.”

Feb. 11 marked a day of prayer and fasting for members of the Byzantine Catholic Church, to pray for aid in this situation.

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