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Romania's Orthodox Church Battles Proselytising Groups

Prague, July 2 (RFE/RL) -- Recent tensions between a religious group and Romania's church and government are provoking new debate in the country about the freedom of new religions to challenge the established Orthodox Church.

Last week, state-owned Romanian facilities cancelled contracts permitting the U.S.-based Jehovah's Witness denomination to use the country's biggest arena -- the national stadium in Bucharest -- for a religious rally.

The two-day rally, scheduled to begin July 19, was due to bring thousands of the group's believers from around the world to Bucharest to join a growing number of Romanian converts.

Our correspondent in Bucharest says that the last minute cancellation is likely to impede the group's plans for the rally, though it has not cancelled the gathering.

Officially, the problem involves claims and denials that the Jehovahs failed to inform the stadium about foreign visitors, which would require the stadium to seek additional permits for the event.

But the dispute has rapidly attracted widespread media interest in Romania because the state-run facilities' action closely follows recent criticisms by the Romanian orthodox church of the Jehovah's Witnesses and other proselytising groups which seek new members among Romania's traditionally orthodox population. That criticism was supported in a public demonstration by about 4,000 Orthodox believers last weekend in Bucharest.

A central issue in the media debate is how much freedom Romanians enjoy to choose their religious affiliation following the collapse of communism in 1989.

On a recent program organized by Radio Free Europe's Romanian service, a prominent leader of the Romanian Baptist movement, Iosif Ton, accused the Romanian church and government of forcing Romanian children to embrace one religion by discouraging the recruitment activities of rival churches. He said the orthodox church depends on the state, and "the state is deciding what should be the religion of its subjects."

The Romanian Orthodox Archbishop of Cluj, Bartolomeu Anania, who debated Ton in the talk show, said the state has nothing to do with the religion of Romanians. He called neo-Protestant groups "profane competitors" who are proselytising to a people who have already been Christian for 2,000 years."

The Romanian press is divided on the level of cooperation, if any, between the government and church in attacking the church's rivals. no laws to limit the activities of proselytising groups exist in Romania, and no proposals for any such laws are pending in the legislature.

Analysts say that the dispute in Romania illustrates how issues of politics and religion can easily become confused in some societies which, after decades of communism, have only recently opened to outside influences.

Penny Morvant, a researcher at the Open Media Research Institute (OMRI) in Prague, says that in some Eastern European countries established churches are making common cause with nationalists to protect traditional values which they feel are threatened by rapid changes.

At the same time, political leaders in some countries have learned that traditional religion and nationalism can make a strong appeal to unite conservative voters.

Last week in Russia, Alexander Lebed, the new security advisor to President Boris Yeltin, put just those formulas to work to try to rally Russian nationalists behind Yeltsin for tomorrow's final presidential vote as he called for tighter entry requirements on some foreign religious groups.

Speaking to the Union of Patriotic and National Organizations, Lebed said that only what he called Russia's "established, traditional religions" of Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism should be permitted."