‘Where Your Treasure Lies...’ A Vein of Gold and a Church Leaves a Town Divided

Catholics and others in an ancient town in Romania are fighting plans by a Canadian mining company to strip a local mountain of its gold.

ROSIA MONTANA, Romania —  Jesus Christ famously said, “Where your treasure lies, there your heart lies also.” That saying is being put to the test in a Romanian town where a church stands between miners and a vein of gold.

“Hell no, this church won’t go,” say Catholics in Rosia Montana, Romania, where gold has been found in the hills and investors want to blow it out.

“We are a poor people sitting on a pot of gold,” said Father Robert Lukacs, the parish priest.

There are no flinging stones in this modern day David-and-Goliath battle of an impoverished community of dairy farmers and out-of-work miners with an unwavering faith to their church and community vs. the gigantic Gabriel Resources Ltd., a Toronto-based company seeking to buy up the Transylvanian village. The company’s strength lies in its numbers, namely the 1,000 new jobs it promises to bring to this rundown area plus $2.5 billion pumped into the Romanian economy.

“The gold company is very clever,” said Father Lukacs, pastor. “Their employees drive up in new pick-up trucks and pretty sports cars. They are showing ‘we have the money; we have the power. You would be smart to join us.’”

For the people that stand against Gabriel’s project, the fight is not about protecting the gold. “We are not anti-mining,” said Stephanie Roth from the Alburnus Maior community organization fighting the company’s takeover.

The people of Rosia Montana made their living off the mines. They want the mines re-opened, and often reminisce about the days when the drills could be heard rumbling through the valley. A now-crumbling casino in the center of town came out of that prosperity.

What concerns this community is how Gabriel Resources plans to go about mining the gold, and the validity of their many big promises.

“They say they are going to preserve the churches, but how, after blowing up the mountain?” said Father Lukacs, pointing to the massive Carnic Hill looming large in the church’s back yard. Carnic is the first of the four hills the company wants to remove. “They will say whatever they have to say. Their goal is to open the mines.”

What has most people up in arms is that after crushing the rock a highly toxic cyanide solution will be added to separate the gold and silver from the ore. Gabriel Resources claims the cyanide will be reduced to safe levels before being discharged into a specially built dam in the valley.

In addition, it pledges to invest $70 million to repair the altered landscape and clean up the mess left by past mining ventures that has resulted in heavy metal content in the area’s water supply, visible in the streams’ rusty color — and which has given Rosia Montana (Red Mountain) its name.

Opponents claim it’s an environmental time bomb that will wreak havoc on the ecology.

Company’s View

But that view reflects ignorance, said Cristina Merrill, a Gabriel Ltd. representative.

“Such accusations would only come from those who are uninformed, either by chance or intent,” she said. “This would be the first responsible mining operation in Romania, in fact, and the first to comply with the EU’s Mine-Waste Directive.”

“Built on the best available techniques, it is designed to be a model of responsible development for the whole mining industry, not just for Romania, and one that would help trigger sustainable development in an area the government has deemed disadvantaged,” she said. “We see the mine as a solution to the area’s mine-induced pollution, a mine to clean up the rivers and soil left behind by 2,000 years of past damage.

“The company will also put in place a management biodiversity plan that will help implement an ecological network, which in a short time will help repopulate the area with existing fauna and flora.”

But Christian leaders issued a statement saying the mine “would cause disastrous consequences for the environment, not only for Rosia Montana but the entire region.”

“We believe that there exist no guarantees that would eliminate the threat posed by the mining project,” said the statement, “particularly not the pretentious and extremely costly assurances made towards the protection and rehabilitation of the environment.”

The statement was signed by Catholic Archbishop György Jakubinyi of Alba-Iulia, Bishop Geza Pap  of the Reformed Church of Romania and Bishop Arpad Szabo of the Unitarian Church of Romania.

Romanian Catholics are less trustful these days of corporate executives and their promises since last year when an office building began going up right next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Bucharest.

What was initially proposed as a 10-story building was upgraded without their knowledge into a 20-level tower. The tower continues rising floor by floor, even though experts in the field have continually warned that the construction will likely lead to a total collapse of the 120-year-old cathedral.

A county-level court ordered a halt to construction. The mid-July court ruling affirmed the petition of the Archdiocese of Bucharest that construction stop until the development’s legality is established. The ruling came after a year of parishioner hunger strikes, protest marches, appeals to the Romanian president and Vatican statements of support for the archdiocese.

Why Not Tourism?

St. Joseph’s is perhaps best remembered for the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his historic 1990 visit. It was the first pontifical visit to a predominantly Orthodox country. A plaque commemorating that momentous day stands by the entrance.

The Catholic community of Rosia Montana, now down to half its size since the project organizers began buying up houses, doesn’t stand alone in this fight, but has aligned itself with each of the area’s five major churches, which are all opposed to Gabriel’s plans.

Though Romania is primarily an Orthodox nation with a 90% Romanian population, Rosia Montana village remains a diverse blend of religions and ethnic groups.

“Here it is like your California during the Gold Rush,” Father Lukacs said. “Wherever gold is found, people come, and from all over. They came to get rich.”

It was the gold that first put Rosia Montana on the map. The town’s first reference comes from a wax-coated tablet found inside an ancient Roman mine referring to the area as Alburnus Maior (Major Settlement) dated A.D. 131. Since then, the mining has never let up; only the methods have changed.

In the Middle Ages, Romanian princes put the Gypsy slaves to work sifting the rivers for gold. Remnants of that community still reside along the riverbank.

The Austro-Hungarian conquest of Transylvania during the 18th century led to the building of the area’s first Catholic Church to support its Catholic mining community. The original wooden church was replaced in 1866 by St. Ladislaus stone church, with its towering steeple that today rivals the massive pines growing along the hill.

“It used to be so beautiful here before the gold company came,” said Sanda Lungu. “Gold came and spoiled everything. The gold company says they will be here only a few years, remove our hills and then what? This will be a poisoned wasteland. If they leave us in peace we can make tourism business here — and that’s forever.”

It has been seven exhausting years for this formerly peaceful community since the gold company began buying up their homes. Only about half the community remains.

Still the battle goes on. Gabriel expects to start excavating in 2009, while the opposition believes a new bill being debated in the Romanian Senate banning the use of cyanide in mining will put an end to the controversial project.

Meanwhile, tensions inside the community continue to fester. Everyone has an opinion. Over windows and doors hang the blue “Property of Rosia Montana Gold Corporation” signs while next door the resistance pastes yellow markers declaring, “This property is NOT for sale.”

It has created a lot of friction, said Father Lukacs. It has pitted children against parents, neighbor against neighbor, Catholic against Catholic.

“On Sunday, we try not to speak about it,” he said. “We try to remain together for at least this one day.”

CNS contributed to this report.

Chuck Todaro is based in Romania.