Romania: church and state

Politicians exist within a democracy and can be voted out. The Romanian Orthodox Church on the other hand does not, and this entrenchment of its power and reach creates an inalienable authority.

The forced impeachment of Romanian President Bascescu has had the question of Romanian democracy ringing through the media all summer, bringing concern and condemnation from Brussels and eventually reaching some kind of resolution with the referendum of July 29. Yet, while the importance of this event cannot be denied, another, perhaps more threatening influence on democracy in the country is going largely ignored; one that lingers both above party politics and below the press radar, its power rooted in the souls of the people and its conflicts played out in small villages - that of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC).  

Twenty years after the death of Ceausescu and Romanian Communism, the ROC is again everywhere in Romania. From schools, hospitals and penitentiaries to almost every living room across the country, the icons of the Orthodox religion seem to give evidence to the statistics that cast this as the sixth most religious country in the world and the Church as the most trusted institution in Romania.

In reality, things are more complicated.  While Romanians show a desire for faith, there is what Church historian Liviu Andrescu sees as ‘widespread discontent’ with the ROC, its pervasive corruption, ostentatious displays of wealth and increasing political influence. Given that ‘public allegiance to the church has never been significantly probed or tested’, Andrescu says, ‘public support may be shallower than it seems.’

This paradox has been playing out with escalating drama in a small village east of Bucharest over the last few years. Events unfolding around a young priest named Casian Pandelica have prompted both the anger of the locals and the potential for violence and autocracy from the ROC.

It began in 2009 with an official complaint launched by Pandelica over the church’s fundraising activities. His position as village priest involved him in collecting money according to a quota each month from the villagers, going from door to door and requesting cash. ‘If people refused to pay, we were expected to blackmail them, saying that they would not receive forgiveness from the church for their sins or that they would not be buried when they died.’ They would always give the money, he said, but would never see any return. ‘No one ever knew what it was used for. It would be handed to the local bishop and that would be it. Gone. And this is just the first link in a chain of corruption which runs all the way through the Church administration.’

Weeks after Pandelica’s complaint, he was told that he would be moving, indefinitely, to a remote monastery in ….. When he refused, citing his family as the reason, he was promptly dismissed from his position in the Church. Trained in political science as well as theology, Pandelica understood that this contravened his rights as a worker under Romanian state law, and so decided to challenge the decision in court. He was told that, although in normal circumstances he would have a case, employees of the Church are subject to a different law, that of the Legea Cultelor, or Law of the Cults, through which no internal charges can be made against the Church. 

In this time a new priest had been installed in Pandelica’s place and was collecting money from the villagers to a further increased quota. Dismayed at the injustice of an unofficial tax they couldn’t afford, people started coming to Pandelica for support; first just a few, and then more and more over the coming months.

Pandelica started giving services to disgruntled believers in his own home, preaching the same faith taught by the church but free from the pressures that the institution exerted upon its faithful. Quickly the congregation swelled and before long nearly all of the village’s 300 population were attending, as many as could fit crowding into his living room and the rest listening in through open windows from outside. Across the village square, the church lay virtually empty.

In Romania, contrary to popular belief, almost all churches belong to the state, to be loaned to whichever religious institution represents the demands of its congregation. With this in mind, Pandelica set about fulfilling the necessary legal requirements to grant his congregation official status as an autonomous religion and, with this accomplished, relocated his services to the village church.

Around the same time, Pandelica was approached by the Romanian Liberal Party (PNL) who, seeing his local popularity, asked him to stand as their representative in the upcoming elections. He agreed, saying that he knew that ‘to have any extensive impact in church affairs in Romania, you need to be involved in politics as well.’

Things moved smoothly to begin with, his political position widely supported and his congregation growing, as Christians came from all around to experience for themselves this new movement. Then early one morning in spring this year, Pandelica was awoken by shouts and a violent battering on the door of his house. Opening the door in his dressing gown, he found a group of Orthodox officials accompanied by the military police. They had with them a presidential order that barred Pandelica and his congregation from use of the village church.

As Pandelica contested his charges from his doorway, villagers, also woken by the banging and shouts of the police, began emerging from their houses and gathering in front of the church, its doors locked behind them. There were over one hundred people when the police moved in with batons, beating up all those who refused to disperse and leaving two hospitalized with broken bones. With the steps cleared they broke down the doors of the church and for the next two days kept it occupied, until new locks and an alarm system had been installed.

Just days later, Pandelica was dropped by PNL. MP Cristina Pocora made a statement in the press to the effect that, ‘If the Church has dismissed Casian Pandelica for violation and disobedience of Church rules, then this man is neither my colleague nor a representative of PNL.’ With the Church’s support vital to secure votes in rural regions, it can be assumed that the motives for the party’s U-turn on Pandelica were formed under pressure from the ROC.

For now, it seems Pandelica is locked in checkmate. With all legal and political avenues blocked by the ROC and a local media that remains largely indifferent, there is no platform from which his voice, and that of the community that stand behind him, can be heard.

Yet this is the time when it is most needed. The ROC has been growing rapidly since its release from the constraints of communism in 1989, and the last four years has brought an unprecedented increase in its power and social influence. As the state has been shrinking under severe EU-enforced austerity measures, the ROC (already widely believed to be the richest institution in the country though closed accounts make this impossible to confirm) has seen a dramatic rise in state funding and the introduction of a new law providing for a ‘special partnership’ in the field of social assistance, with Church-supplied services to be funded 80% by the state. With over half of the country’s schools and hospitals closed or merged in the last 18 months, the scope for ROC influence is huge. The line held by the ROC is that Church and state should work closely together, with a senior representative, Bogdan Ivanov announcing, ‘The church is better than the state at distributing public money and offering the services our society needs.’  

Given the corruption that runs through Romanian politics and the Romanian distrust of their political leaders, it is possible Bogdan Ivanov may be right. But politicians exist within a democracy and they can be voted out. The Church on the other hand does not, and this entrenchment of its power and reach creates an inalienable authority that represents not the whole country but a falling portion of its populace. As the ROC moves outside of both legal and democratic lines, popular discontent can find no means of expression and those not belonging to its congregations will become increasingly marginalized.

Pandelica talks of other examples across the country where priests have stood up against the ROC and their congregations have followed. The Church, he says, ‘has always come down with a maximum of violence. They are very aware that discontent will spread and quickly undermine the authority of the ROC.’ 

About the author

Luke Dale-Harris is a freelance journalist based in the Transylvanian city of Cluj Napoca. He writes about ecology, politics and human rights, looking at how these issues come together in the rapidly changing landscapes at the periphery of the EU.