Page 7, 10th January 1992

10th January 1992
Page 7
Page 7, 10th January 1992 — Romania's Eastern rite Catholics can now worship, but have no

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Romania's Eastern rite Catholics can now worship, but have no

churches. Janice Broun reports on how tensions with the Orthodox are escalating Free but freezing

ON a foggy, freezing winter's morning I joined hundreds of Romania's Eastern rite Catholics popularly known as Greek Catholics because of their Byzantine Rite at their weekly mass in Cluj's Piata Libertate.

This is their third winter out in the cold. As Capuchin Vasile Ungureanu put it "we now have liberty to worship in Liberty Square under the open sky". Ironically, mass takes place within sight of their former cathedral, one of eight Cluj churches barred to them. Forty three years after their confiscation, two years after the revolution and re-legalisation of the Greek Catholic Church, their 2000 churches are still in the grip of the Orthodox. Only four have been returned.

After mass, Cluj's burly vicar general, Fr Tertulian I,anga, announced that the site the Cluj Prefecture had just granted for a new cathedral had been withdrawn, thanks to protests from communist members. "The only freedom we get from our government is freedom of publicity," he complained. "I don't think we pose any problem for our new government, which has a terrible economic and fuel crisis to cope with!"

Afterwards he told me that recovering all their lost churches was out of the question. "Our only hope is in the West's determination to put pressure on our government to ensure that it abides by the conventions which it has signed."

Fr Langa, a veteran of 17 imprisonment who didn't see his daughter until she was seven, is the most implacable and outspoken of the Catholic clergy. He was the priest who after Cluj's first public mass on January 1 1990 cried the Easter greeting; "Christ is risen!" He would surely be a bishop if he were not married.

In other Transylvanian cities and towns too, Catholics have to worship in public squares, cemeteries, or, if they are lucky, hired halls. Roman Catholics are warmly supportive but in Transylvania, where most are Hungarian or German, hold several masses. It is difficult to fit in the longer, rich Byzantine liturgy. Since October at least one Lutheran congregation has shared its church.

In small town and villages Catholics are more vulnerable to hostile Orthodox priests who often refuse them entry to their former churches and incite the local riff-raff to intimidate them.

Some, like Filia de Jos, have even become no-go areas for Catholic priests, and Cluj's Bishop George Gutiu wouldn't allow me to visit one. Mission priest Pius Miclaus told me how his entry by car to Filia de Jos was blocked by a mob armed with rocks and staves. "So I usually arrive in a village under cover of darkness, say mass and hear confessions until the early hours of the morning," he explained.

On another occasion after he'd entered the village by taxi and said mass, Orthodox who "seemed possessed by devils" accused him of trying to sell Transylvania to the Hungarian minority. This is a standard charge provoked by the government, which seems hellbent on stirring up trouble between peoples who get along remarkably well together.

"They let me go but then wrenched the crucifix from the altar and threatened the legally constituted president of our new parish committee with a pig knife". After six hours they forced him to sign a declaration that he would never again invite a Catholic priest to the village, or they'd burn his house down. He told them "I've waited 42 years for a Catholic mass." No priest has been back for three months.

Understandably, Catholics express tremendous bitterness against the Orthodox bishops and priests involved, accusing them of being in the pay of the revamped Securitate, or secret police. The Orthodox hierarchy collaborated in the takeover of the Catholic Church and are still collaborating in refusing to allow it to reconstitute a normal religious life.

Only one Bishop, Nicolae Cornea of Timisoara, gave the cathedral back. The rest, even some promising younger men promoted through the efforts of the Orthodox renewal movement, remain deeply convinced that all Romanians should be Orthodox. They point out, with sonic justification, that the original Greek Catholic Church was founded under duress. However, they conveniently forget that the Greek Catholics played a key tole in the recovery of Romanian culture, language and self consciousness in eighteenthcentury Transylvania.

Who is really responsible for the impasse?

Bishop Gutiu told me that President Ion lliescu abdicated the government's basic responsibility and shifted the onus to the Orthodox Church. "It was the government which originally stole our churches and it is the government which should give them back, not the Orthodox."

An Orthodox friend from a mixed Orthodox-Catholic family told me that the Orthodox were far inure victims than the Catholic Church because it is still kept under such tight Securitate control. Doina Cornea, leading dissident and devout Catholic, told me how many Orthodox priests came to her in distress at being forced to persecute a church they regard as a sister.

Miklaus admitted that some Orthodox priests treat him well, and allow him to share weddings and requiems in Transylvanian villages. In protest against their church's subservience many Orthodox lay people are voting with their feet. Hungarian Reformed priest Mikos Ferenczy, an ardent ecumenist, told of an Orthodox colleague who had lost 2000 parishioners to the Catholics "and many were professors, doctors, lawyers". For despite its handicaps, the church's reputation for unflinching witness and moral integrity under dire persecution is second to none.

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