BUCHAREST, Romania — David defeated Goliath, again, in late January in Romania’s capital city, when an appeals court issued a final ruling in favor of a humble cathedral pitted against a gigantic steel office tower, concluding a seven-year legal and political struggle.
In an unprecedented, definitive decision, the court ordered a 19-story skyscraper demolished and the land restored to its prior condition — a small city park.
Concurring with several lower-court decisions, the judge concluded that the office tower, known as Cathedral Plaza, was illegally constructed without proper permits or authorizations in a brazen gesture that threatened the cathedral’s physical security while limiting the ability of citizens to exercise religious freedom.
"Many people thought the power of money was enough to defeat the power of ideals, the power of law, the power of truth and justice and, primarily, the power of God," declared Archbishop Ioan Robu, 68, at a Jan. 25 press conference in Bucharest. Instead, the archbishop said, "Because God exists, his wishes are achieved."
Entrusted with shepherding the archdiocese since he was named bishop by Pope John Paul II in 1984, Archbishop Robu led a high-profile public campaign to protect the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
Thousands of priests and parishioners marched through downtown Bucharest to protest the illegal construction, which began to rise in the air in 2006, just 26 feet from the cathedral’s unreinforced brick walls. Thousands more signed petitions addressed to the government.
Catholic churches around the country hung bold black-and-red banners on their facades, equating protecting the cathedral with protecting the nation’s cultural values.
The Romanian Orthodox Church, representing 86% of the population, participated in the Catholic Church’s campaign in a quiet working relationship coordinated by the Catholic archbishop, who thanked the Orthodox Church at his press conference.
The Cathedral of St. Joseph is the country’s largest Latin Catholic edifice, built in 1883 and protected as a historic monument. It’s a spiritual center for Romania’s 2 million-strong Catholic community, including 1.2 million Roman Catholics and 800,000 Eastern-rite Catholics.
Though small in number, comprising less than 5% of the country’s total population, the Catholic community has gained strength through adversity: Two Romanian communist-era martyrs were beatified in the last three years, with 15 more under consideration. Blessed Janos Scheffler, a prominent bishop, exemplified the torture suffered by clergy in the recent past. In 1950, communist authorities boiled him alive, pouring hot water over his body through a prison shower.
When Blessed John Paul II said Mass at St. Joseph’s during his 1999 visit to Romania — his first to a predominantly Orthodox Christian country — he spoke eloquently of the intense suffering of Romanian Catholics under communism.
But, in the post-communist environment, "there are weak institutions and corrupt local politicians who partner with unscrupulous economic interests," the archbishop observed in a telephone interview with the Register.
Millennium Building Development, the project’s holding company, is controlled by Eyal Ofer, director of Royal Caribbean cruise line and heir to an enormous fortune built by his father, Romanian-born Sammy Ofer. According to The New York Times, the Ofer family’s billion-dollar business network makes them one of Israel’s wealthiest families, among the so-called "tycoons" who control about 30% of Israel’s economy.
"We didn’t know that we needed authorization from the Vatican," Ofer told Romania’s Mediafax sarcastically when the company lost a major court case regarding the cathedral in 2011. "If I knew, I would have gone to the Vatican personally and asked for it."
Not getting proper authorizations was only one of many offenses committed by Millennium. As early as 2006, a team of 12 construction engineers and the state inspector general compiled a detailed list of building-code violations.
Because the cathedral is located in one of Europe’s most-active seismic zones, significant stress testing is required of every building — especially one destined to be one of Romania’s tallest.
In 1977, an earthquake registering 7.3 on the Richter scale caused the deaths of 1,500 people in Bucharest alone. The cathedral’s foundation was damaged then and weakened as well by three other earthquakes in the last 70 years.
An independent team from an Italian seismic observatory recently concluded that every building within 200 feet of Cathedral Plaza could be leveled if the city experiences an earthquake comparable to ones in the past.
"Every expert, including engineers who worked for Millennium and quit in protest, told us our fears were absolutely legitimate," said Archbishop Robu.
Based on the convincing documentation compiled by the archdiocese as well as city authorities, a number of powerful institutions condemned the construction, including the Romanian Academy, the Romanian Senate and the European Parliament.
The Vatican protested the danger posed to believers who entered the sacred space of St. Joseph’s. Pope Benedict XVI raised the problem with Romanian President Traian Basescu when Basescu visited Castel Gandolfo in 2008. Despite worldwide denunciation — and stop-work orders — Cathedral Plaza construction continued unabated.
"We normally have 8,000 people coming to the cathedral each weekend," said the archbishop. "The thunderous drilling, day and night, made many people understandably fearful to come inside. I was shouting to try to say Mass!"
What the audacious developers had not anticipated was Archbishop Robu’s intention to protect his flock with a determination as steely as the skyscraper’s girders. Having served as a priest, seminary director, apostolic administrator and bishop during the oppressive dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, the archbishop was not going to fold without a fight against the development.
"Even Ceausescu did not dare to take on the cathedral when he was destroying churches in other parts of the city," said Archbishop Robu.
The archbishop and his team believe that the developers’ aggressive attitude is the result of political connections. "Political protection is the only explanation for the egotism and disrespect of these developers," the archbishop contended.
He continued, "President Basescu was the mayor of Bucharest when Millennium first obtained the land from the city. The president never responded to one of the many letters I wrote to him over the years asking him for help. His government ignored us, too."
The current mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu, concluded that the transaction by which Millennium obtained the land was illegal. He has challenged it in court as an illicit insider deal, stating that the land should have been sold through a public auction, if at all.
Archbishop Robu said, "We consider this latest victory to be a blow against corruption. It marks a turning point in the fate of a tower that stands as physical proof of contempt for the law, immeasurable pride and blind ambition."
"The court has clearly said that the law must be respected, whether you have a lot of money or you are a simple person," he commented.
In a written comment on the cathedral’s court victory, Romania’s apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Francisco-Javier Lozano, wrote, "I congratulate Archbishop Robu and his collaborators for the tenacity, perseverance and determination they showed in the fight against this unimaginable aggression against the Church."
Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.