ROMANIA: Restrictive Religion Bill Revived.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 27 February 2001

A highly restrictive religion bill withdrawn by the government last year after protests by non-Orthodox religious communities (see KNS 17 February 2000) has been revived by the Ministry of Culture and Cults. The draft text was sent to the country's fourteen recognised religious communities in early February and they have been given until 15 March to produce their comments, but some religious leaders and human rights activists have already voiced their concern. `Many of us hoped that the proposal for a new law on religion was forgotten in the form in which it is raising its head again,' Otniel Bunaciu, deputy general secretary of the Baptist Union, told Keston News Service from Bucharest on 24 February. However, officials of the Ministry of Culture and Cults, which is promoting the bill, insisted to Keston that the current draft is only a proposal and the views of all religious faiths will be taken into account in drawing up the final text to be presented to the government and parliament.

Stefan Ioanita, director of the culture ministry's department for relations with religious groups, told Keston by telephone from Bucharest on 27 February that the much-criticised draft withdrawn last year is `no longer valid', but admitted that this year's draft contains `almost the same text'. He claims such provisions as fines on those organising religious activity without state permission no longer figure in the new draft.

He reported that the draft has been sent only to the fourteen religious communities recognised in law as `religious cults', but added: `All religious communities have access to the text. We photocopied it and gave it out. All those who asked for it have received it, not just the fourteen recognised communities.' Asked by Keston whether only those comments submitted by the recognised communities will be considered, he declared: `No. We will consider all responses. We don't make distinctions between religious communities.'

Father Mihai Lungu, secretary of the foreign church relations department of the Orthodox Patriarchate, declared that his church is broadly supportive. `We have a very favourable opinion of this draft,' he told Keston by telephone from Bucharest on 27 February. `There are just a few suggested changes we have, but they are not in the essentials.' He said Romania needed a new religion law as the old law dated back to 1948. `It will be of great benefit to the whole Romanian people.' He spoke of `good cooperation' between the recognised religious communities and the State Secretariat for Religious Cults (which was subsumed last December into the Ministry of Culture and Religious Cults under the new government).

Bunaciu told Keston the decision to reintroduce an almost identical bill to that rejected last year was `unexpected', adding: `Surprisingly this proposal is nothing but the old proposal, which was much criticised by almost all religious denominations in Romania except the Orthodox Church.' He declares that `most' of the country's faiths believe that if adopted in the present form, the law `would bring serious prejudice to religious freedom'. Adrian Bocaneanu, president of the Adventist Church, also expressed his concern about the new text. He told Keston on 25 February that the old and the new versions `seem to be identical'.

Bunaciu pointed to several provisions of the draft he found unacceptable, including the requirement for religious groups to have permission from the state secretary for religion to be able to operate; the privileged status given to the Orthodox Church as a National Church; discrimination between a number of officially recognised denominations and other religious groups `who would have at best a tolerated status'; the threshold of 0.5% of Romania's population for group's to gain the status of a recognised cult, which he argues `will become a way to discriminate against minority religious groups'; and the undefined nature in the draft of the term `aggressive proselytism'. He also expressed concern that groups that succeeded in getting legal backing could lose it if another body successfully complained that its own `legitimate rights and interests' had been violated.

Father Lungu told Keston the Orthodox Church had objected in particular to the 0.5% threshold to acquire recognised status, believing that no numerical threshold was required.

However, Ioanita brushed aside such concerns. `We are very open to proposals and invite everyone to dialogue. This will be a democratic process.' He was unable to give Keston a timetable of how the bill is likely to proceed. However, Gabriel Andreescu, chair of the Centre for Human Rights within the Romanian Helsinki Committee, reported he had learnt from Lavrentiu Tanase, state secretary at the ministry in charge of relations with religious communities, that it intends to have a final text in March, to have a decision from the government in April and for the bill to be sent to parliament in May. `By June they hope to have a new law,' Andreescu told Keston on 27 February from Bucharest.

Andreescu shared the concerns of some minority faiths about the current draft. `A law on religion is a fundamental law for freedom of religion and democracy,' he declared. `That is why I prepared an alternative, liberal draft bill which I handed out in January.' He is concerned the government is trying to rush through the current restrictive version to prevent minority communities having time to lobby against it. (END)