WASHINGTON — A group of 20 U.S. lawmakers has pushed the State Department to encourage Romania’s government to return property confiscated from minority religious groups under the former communist regime.“That’s our hope, that the Romanian government does reparations for what’s been seized, and makes things right,” Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., told CNA.
After World War II, he said, the Romanian Catholic Church “wasn’t allowed their buildings — religious objects were seized. It’s about time to make things right.”
Harris authored a letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 12 Republicans and seven Democrats, asking the U.S. Department of State to “vigorously engage the Romanian government to end the travesty of justice which it has perpetuated by failing to fully restitute properties illegally confiscated from religious denominations after 1945.”
Romania was behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain following World War II, and in 1948 the country’s communist government forcibly dissolved the Romanian Catholic Church, which is an Eastern rite Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome. It is headed by Cardinal Lucian Muresan, the major archbishop of Fagaras and Alba Iulia..
When the Church was dissolved, its properties were handed over to the Romanian Orthodox Church.
The communist government’s practice of confiscating Church properties in Romania primarily affected Romanian Catholics, but the churches of the Hungarian Reform, Lutherans and Unitarians were also seized. Jewish properties were also confiscated.
Some 86% of Romanians are Orthodox, and 5% are Roman Catholic. Romanian Catholics account for only 1% of the country’s population.
After the communist regime fell in 1989, the Romanian government continued to deny Romanian Catholics the use of their churches, and until 2004 even prohibited them from being able to file lawsuits to win the churches back.
According to the State Department’s 2012 International Religious Freedom Report, many lawsuits since 2004 have been delayed in court. There have been also moves in the Romanian parliament to stop restitution processes that would return the properties to their original owners.
The State Department has repeatedly called the Romanian government’s failure to transfer properties back to the Romanian Catholic Church a “significant problem.”
“The lack of progress on restitution of … churches transferred by the former communist government to the Orthodox Church in 1948 remained a significant problem,” its latest report on international religious freedom stated.
The U.S. Congress adopted a resolution in 2005 calling for the restitution of religious properties in Romania.
The letter authored by Harris noted that “unfortunately, the Romanian response has been a pattern of disregard, delay, obfuscation and hindrance.”
It also noted several offenses by the Romanian government against religious freedom which happened in 2013 alone.
Particular attention was given to an April 17 law, which “delays and complicates restitution” and an April 23 law, “which deliberately omitted return of archival materials” seized from religious minorities in 1974.
“Rep. Chris Smith [R-N.J.] has cited the thousands of claims received by the European Court of Human Rights in Romanian property matters,” it added.
The State department issued a letter in response, signed by acting Assistant Secretary Thomas Gibbons, who said that property restitution “is an administration priority that we have long raised with Romania and other European partners.”
“Advocating for the rights of Romania’s religious and ethnic minorities, including the rights of the Jewish, Hungarian, Greek-Catholic and Roma communities, is a key priority of the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest,” it stated.
The Romanian Greek-Catholic Association, a California-based advocacy group for Romanian Catholics, thanked the members of Congress who sent the letter to the State department, and voiced hope that the initiative will lead to a respect for “basic human rights” in the country.
“Their initiative provided hope for so many Catholics in Romania who are striving to have their human rights respected and be able to worship freely and without constraint in their own churches,” said Father Chris Terhes, president of the association and a priest of the Romanian Eparchy of St. George’s in Canton, Ohio.
He called on lawmakers to continue demanding that Romanian officials “restitute the properties confiscated under the communist regime, which would close a sad chapter of the Romanian history and help the country evolve to a functional democracy.”