A Skyscraper Scandal
An archbishop takes on the powers that be and the government to save his cathedral.
BY VICTOR GAETAN
| Posted 3/21/11 at 1:08 PM
BUCHAREST, Romania — Persecution comes in so many varieties.
In Bucharest, the capital of Romania, a tenacious archbishop has led a five-year struggle against a Goliath next door — a 19-story skyscraper, with four underground levels, being constructed about 25 feet from the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
The cathedral is the region’s Catholic spiritual center, besides being the seat of the archdiocese. When Pope John Paul II visited Romania in 1999, his first visit to a majority Orthodox country, he said Mass at St. Joseph’s.
Even winning stop-work orders from local courts and gaining support from the European Parliament, the Romanian Senate and the Vatican haven’t been enough: This ominous tower is virtually complete.
“Cathedral Plaza,” as it is called, is owned by Millennium Building Development, a local holding company for U.S. and Israeli investors, through Miller Global Properties of Denver.
“The Catholic Church is experiencing a form of treacherous disregard from authorities,” said Archbishop Ioan Robu. “Political protection is the only way to explain how the developers have gotten this far.”
Miller Global Property’s offices in Denver and New York did not respond to requests for comment on this matter.
Romania’s president, Traian Basescu, was Bucharest’s mayor when Millennium bought the property on which they are building Cathedral Plaza.
The city’s current mayor, Sorin Oprescu, reviewed documents in the city’s archives and concluded that the sale of land to Millennium was a corrupt arrangement because, as public land, it should have been auctioned publicly. The mayor has taken Millennium to court.
The church is the country’s largest Latin-Catholic edifice, a 19th-century cultural treasure located in one of Europe’s most active seismic zones.
During thunderous drilling next door, “Worshippers could barely hear me say Mass,” said Archbishop Robu, who has led the Latin-Catholic community, approximately 1.2 million strong, since 1990.
Romania also has some 800,000 Eastern-rite Catholics who are in communion with the Pope. Their Church was banned by the communists, who tried to forcibly liquidate them.
“Some parishioners are too afraid to come to the cathedral anymore, because the monstrosity threatens us. Cracks are already appearing in our walls, but the real nightmare is the possibility of an earthquake, when we could be crushed.”
Numerous Code Violations
The archbishop isn’t exaggerating. An independent study by specialists from an Italian seismic observatory concluded that all buildings within about 200 feet of the office tower could be destroyed in an earthquake of the scale experienced in the region. The cathedral’s foundation, composed of unreinforced masonry, has already suffered damage from four earthquakes since 1940.
Emmanuel Necula, a Romanian-American structural engineer who worked for Millennium, quit the project when he concluded the developers were cutting corners and not performing necessary tests of the construction’s ability to withstand high winds or tremors: “I have spent years telling Romanian authorities that Cathedral Plaza is dangerous. Archbishop Robu is exactly right.”
Besides hypothetical risk, the archdiocese has assembled convincing evidence that the construction, begun in spring 2006, is illegal.
Because the cathedral is included on a list of national historical monuments, the developers were required to get the archbishop’s approval — as well as approval from the Ministry of Culture — before construction began, but neither the archdiocese nor the ministry signed off on the architectural plans as implemented.
Soon after the project took off, 12 construction inspectors and the state inspector general signed a report listing numerous building-code violations.
A series of court decisions in 2007, 2009 and 2010 have sided with the archdiocese against Millennium. Last November, a Romanian court of appeals in the city of Suceava issued an order that “irrevocably canceled” construction authorizations for the project.
Yet, as journalist Razvan Savaliuc observed, “Since the ‘irrevocable’ decision, not only didn’t construction on the tower stop immediately, it accelerated, despite a chain of protesters around the building, who assemble every day.”
Cathedral supporters continue to hold demonstrations at the construction site, taking turns filming the ongoing work to share with the police and post on the archdiocesan website.
Worse Than the Communists?
It is hard to imagine what more the archdiocese — and the faithful — could do to stave off the audacious project.
A group of parishioners and supporters initiated a hunger strike in front of the prime minister’s office when “Cathedral Plaza” first got under way.
Thousands of faithful, clergy, seminarians and men and women religious have marched in high-profile demonstrations against the project which, they say, humiliates the Christian community, besides threatening it physically.
The Vatican has clearly expressed its support for the Cathedral of St. Joseph, through the nuncio and in a 2008 meeting at Castel Gandolfo between Pope Benedict XVI and President Basescu — who insists he has no power to help the Church. A letter written by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone to the then foreign minister, Razvan Ungureanu, was mischievously concealed from the prime minister — until it was revealed by the press.
The European Parliament issued a declaration against the “illegal construction” in Bucharest in 2007, directing the Romanian government to protect its cultural patrimony. And the Romanian Senate passed a motion the same year directing the government to nationalize the controversial property and disassemble it.
Still, the building continued to rise.
“I lived through the communist dictatorship, and even Nicolae Ceausescu did not dare touch the cathedral,” observed Archbishop Robu. “Money matters more than anything to the people in power today.”
“It’s like an inexplicable war that has opened old wounds between the powerful, who were always atheists in the past, and the faithful,” said Gabriel Barbut, a parishioner for the last 40 years.
The archbishop is convinced the Church will prevail, despite the aggressive resistance exhibited by the developers, who have filed several lawsuits in the last few weeks against the “irrevocable” order.
“Our people are unified against this threat. [Latin] Catholics and Greek Catholics from across the country have mobilized to defend the cathedral. The Orthodox Church is with us. The Romanian Academy has helped,” recounted the archbishop. “All people of good will and culture know that churches are sacred.”
Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington, D.C.
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