Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Two churches at war in the land of Dracula


WHEN Dumitru Butuza's wife died earlier this year, the Transylvanian farmer went to his village priest to ask that the church bell be rung, a tradition in this part of Romania. The priest refused: he is an Orthodox Christian, while Mr Butuza is a Catholic.

Mr Butuza's reaction was to take matters into his own hands. Determined to honour his wife, he went to the church belfry and pushed the button that activates the bells. The priest responded by calling the police. Officers arrived, bundled Mr Butuza, 71, into a squad car and then threw him in jail, charging him with burglary.

He was later released without charge, but the incident is one of hundreds in an undeclared war between members of the Catholic and Orthodox churches raging through this region of forests and mountains.

The cause of the unrest is simple. When the Communists seized power in Romania after the Second World War, they banned Catholicism, then transferred more than 2,000 Catholic churches to Orthodox control. Now the Catholics want those churches back, but in all but a handful of cases, the Orthodox church has said no.

Catholics have been trying to reclaim their churches ever since the Communists were overthrown in the 1989 revolution.

A restitution law passed in 2002 has allowed Romanians to reclaim property confiscated by the Communists, most notably the so-called Castle Dracula at Bran, the country's top tourist spot, which was handed back earlier this year to a member of the Austrian Habsburg family.

But in apparent deference to the wishes of the Orthodox Church, a powerful force in today's Romania, the 2002 law made an exception for Catholic churches. As a result, a total of 2,200 Catholic properties remain in Orthodox hands.

The Catholics launched court actions to recover other property, including houses and land, with limited success.

Then in January, Romania was admitted to the European Union after promising to respect the rule of law. Under the spotlight of Brussels, court cases then began to move faster, and the trickle of properties handed back to the Catholics has become a flood.

Meanwhile, the European Court in Strasbourg has ordered Romania to hand back one Catholic property, and other cases are being considered.

In the town of Buzas, this has caused a furore. While the church remains in Orthodox hands, the Catholics are pushing local courts for the return of forest land and the priest's house. "The law is very clear," says the Catholic parish priest, Florin Costin. "Everything that is confiscated by the Communists must be given back."

But the Orthodox church is determined to resist, and its members' anger is not hard to see. Parking by the village church, my car is surrounded by a dozen Orthodox parishioners, worried I have been sent by the Catholics, and they threaten to attack me with axes and scythes. The Orthodox priest, Father Andrei Coste, arrives, resplendent in long black robes, to restore calm.

"The people here are angry," he tells me. "If the police come to enforce this law, they will find the people blocking their way."

He insists the law is wrong and takes no account of the majority of worshippers. "Church property should be given according to the number of people who use it, and the majority of this village are Orthodox," he says.

Catholics are equally determined. Denied their churches, they have set up makeshift chapels in local villages, using borrowed rooms, basements, schools and even open fields to hold their services. "There is a lot of anger," Father Costin says. "There have been attacks, cars have been overturned."

This antagonism has deep roots. Catholicism arrived in Transylvania in 1700, when Austria occupied the territory, encouraging a hybrid form of the church named Greek Catholicism, which combines loyalty to the Pope with practices from the Orthodox church, notably the right of priests to marry.

To members of the Orthodox church, the Greek Catholics are usurpers. "If you look a little further back, we see that these [Catholic] churches were orthodox churches and were taken by the Austro-Hungarian empire." says Andrei Vladareanu, a legal adviser to the Orthodox Patriachate.

This is hotly disputed by the Catholics, not least because most of their churches were built long after 1700.

The Catholics are not the only ones to complain. A report by the United States' state department says the Orthodox church is campaigning against other Christian faiths. "In some cases, Orthodox priests incited the local population against activities by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the Baptist Church, the Greek Catholic Church and Jehovah's Witnesses," it says.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox church is battling accusations that it collaborated with the former Communists.

In August, a government commission reported that four out of the five candidates for the post of Patriarch had previously worked for the Communist secret police.

The growing antagonism has many fearing the worst. "I've never seen things so bad," says Petru Berinda, a restorer who repairs wooden churches for both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. "There's going to be violence."

The Catholics are now petitioning the Vatican and Brussels to push Romania to include churches in the restitution law, saying their fight is the acid test of the government's promise to respect the law.

Father Cristian Teglas, a legal adviser to the Catholics, says: "Property is not a notion for discussion - property is a right."


BASED on the numbers of adherents, Eastern Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian communion in the world after the Roman Catholic Church.

The most common estimates of the number of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide range between 150 and 350 million individuals.

The Catholic church, with its huge Latin-American base, numbers about 1 billion.

In the 11th century the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to separation of the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

There were doctrinal issues involved in the split, such as the authority of the Pope.

But these were overshadowed by cultural and linguistic differences between Latins and Greeks.

The final breach is often considered to have arisen after the capture and sacking of Constantinople by the Catholic-led Fourth Crusade in 1204.

The sacking of the Orthodox Church of Holy Wisdom was taken particularly badly. Many treasures that were stolen from the Orthodox during this period - holy relics, riches, and many other items - are still held in various western European cities, particularly Venice.

In 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople.

The Orthodox church also nurses somewhat of a grudge for the lack of serious intervention by Rome in 1453, when Constantinople fell to Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman forces.
This article: http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=1490632007


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