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Romania: Dispute Between Orthodox And Eastern Rite Churches Complicates Restitution Issues

  • Don Hill

More than 50 years ago, new communist regimes in Eastern Europe seized church properties in the name of the state. For the last 10 years, former communist countries have been working -- some less eagerly than others -- to return these properties to their rightful owners. RFE/RL reports that the situation in Romania demonstrates how severely old rivalries can tangle the process.

Prague, 5 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Christian church divided in 1054 into Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church. This "Great Schism" started a chain of events that still is entangling the churches of Eastern Europe.

Since the schism, the two divisions have repeatedly subdivided. Eastern Orthodoxy fragmented into multiple national branches. Protestants left the Roman Catholic Church and split into denominations.

Further complicating things, in the 17th century, a number of Eastern Orthodox clergy and laity accepted the leadership of the pope in Rome but continued to follow Orthodox forms of worship. Such groups became known as Eastern Rite Catholics, or in some places as Greek Catholics.

The Communist regimes that took hold in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s banned Eastern Rite churches on the grounds that they pledged allegiance to a "foreign power," the pope. Communist authorities confiscated Eastern Rite churches, as well as real estate and other forms of property.

In several countries -- Ukraine, Romania, Russia, and Poland among them -- they turned many of these properties over to the national Orthodox churches.

With the fall of communism, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as private citizens, have been calling for restitution of their former properties. In the case of Eastern Rite properties, the issue has proved especially complicated.

Pope John Paul II asked Romania last week to restitute church assets that the Communists confiscated more than 50 years ago. He doubtless hoped to capitalize on goodwill he had generated with Romanian Orthodox leaders on a visit to Romania in May 1999.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu responded this week. He said the Romanian state is unable to force restitution of church properties. Iliescu said that only local worshippers can decide the ownership of a church. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase subsequently said that the Romanian parliament may legislate a solution to the problem later this year.

Romanian Catholic Archbishop Ioan Robu said the issue really is as clear as right and wrong. "All governments have avoided the problem of the restitution of church properties. [Restitution has been] postponed and now we have a very vague promise that a decree will clear how and when these goods will be restituted all over the country. To get back what we are entitled to needs no decree because this is a right that needs no law. There is the right to property that was never lost. It was only violated," Robu said.

Some, however, might argue that the archbishop's view is only half-correct. The issue in Romania, Ukraine, and other countries where authorities stripped properties from Eastern Rite Catholics and awarded them to the Eastern Orthodox can be seen as being complicated by issues of right versus right, as well as right and wrong.

Though the Catholic hierarchy may perceive church buildings as property of the church to be administered by the Vatican in Rome, Orthodox laity who have been worshipping in those structures all their lives obviously see them differently.

One pressure motivating Romania's Nastase government to seek a solution to the restitution question is Romania's desire to win Western acceptance and be admitted to NATO and the European Union.

Orthodox Bishop Vincentiu Ploiesteanu suggested that this is an irrelevancy. He said the restitution issue should be simply a Romanian problem and should not be linked with foreign-policy concerns. As he put it, "I am convinced that the leaders of the church and the political leaders will have the wisdom to find a solution acceptable to all."

Geraldine Fagan is a Moscow correspondent for the Keston News Service, which reports on religious issues in former communist countries. She said similar complexities entangle restitution processes all over the former Soviet bloc. She said some of the countries in transition from communism technically never have relinquished state ownership of seized church properties at all. "Certainly, in the former Soviet Union, what tends to have happened in the case of church restitution is that the church buildings and property haven't actually been given back to believers as property, as private property. What tends to happen is that a building is given on permanent lease," Fagan said.

There may be a psychological factor also that causes Eastern Rite Catholics to retain a sense of ownership over their former churches in which Orthodox Christians have been worshipping for all these years. The liturgy looks much the same.

Fagan said: "It's a rather curious hybrid, actually. So you'll see, for instance, if you walk into a Greek Catholic Church [in westernmost Ukraine], the congregation will be standing. And they will also venerate icons, except that when you see what icon they are venerating it will be a picture of the sacred heart of Jesus, which is obviously very Catholic."

Furthermore, the interiors of Orthodox and Eastern Rite churches are similar and Eastern Rite priests wear beards and robes more like those of Orthodox clergy than the vestments of Roman Catholic priests.

Critics of the Romanian government's delays in restitution of church properties say there is a flaw in President Iliescu's claim that ownership decisions should be made by local worshippers. While about 2,500 churches are involved in the Romanian restitution controversy, so is a large amount of church property other than houses of worship.

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