ROMANIA: Prefect Changes Property Restitution Criteria

Romanita Iordache, Keston News Service, 2 October 2001

Despite protests from local Romanian Greek Catholic leaders, the prefect of Alba county in north western Romania has refused to overturn a directive he issued two months ago directing the land restitution commissions in his county to return former Greek Catholic property confiscated when the Church was banned in 1948 not to its original owners but to divide it between the Greek Catholics and Orthodox in line with their current numbers. Ovidiu Palcu, the head of administration at the Blaj Greek Catholic Metropolitanate, told Keston News Service in late September that immediately after the directive was issued Greek Catholic leaders in Alba Iulia had asked the prefect, Ioan Rus, to annul his directive and to comply with the law. Palcu said Rus had told him he would not amend the directive. Keston repeatedly tried to contact Rus in late July as well as on 26 and 27 September, but once his secretary learnt the subject of Keston's questions she declared that he was 'not available'. Keston contacted the State Secretariat for Cults in Bucharest on 2 October, but officials referred all enquiries to the general director, Stefan Ionita, who was not in the office.

It was in directive 5620 of 16 July, of which Keston has received a copy, that Rus issued his directions to the local commissions in charge of land restitution to ignore the issue of who owned the land and to decide on restitution solely on the basis of current numbers.

In a protest joined by the Romanian Helsinki Committee, Greek Catholics complain that the Church will be deprived once again of its lawful properties and that the consequences of the Communist legacy - when all Greek Catholic property was confiscated and some handed over to the Orthodox Church - will be legitimised. In Alba county alone the Greek Catholic Church owned 3,600 hectares (8900 acres) of agricultural land and 3,800 hectares of forest, the Church maintains. So far fewer than 10 churches and just 80 hectares (200 acres) of land adjacent to parish houses have been given back.

The prefect's decision was supported by the local Orthodox archbishop, Andrei (Andreicut) of Alba Iulia, who told journalists on 10 August 'there is no conflict. I think this is not even the position of the prefect.' He remained adamant that the current numbers of believers should be the main criterion for restoring confiscated Greek Catholic property. 'We do not want the Greek Catholic Church to be frustrated, but others shouldn't suffer an injustice either. There are tens of villages which now are Orthodox. Why should we give back the land to the Greek Catholics when they don't even have adherents in these villages?' He added that so far the Orthodox Church has not received any land. The Orthodox Church argues that a transfer of ownership from the Greek Catholics to the Orthodox has already taken place, given that the Orthodox used much Greek Catholic property between 1948 and 1989.

A state-recognised denomination until after the Second World War, the Greek Catholic Church was dissolved and outlawed through a forced merger with the Orthodox Church in 1948. A total of 2,206 churches were confiscated, as well as other property. Decree 177 of 1948 allowed the Orthodox Church to use all the religious facilities previously belonging to the Greek Catholic Church, while all former structures of the Greek Catholic Church - associations, organisations, orders, dioceses, parishes, monasteries, foundations or institutions - ceased to exist. Within days of the ousting and execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, one of the first legislative documents was a decree once again recognising the Greek Catholic Church's existence.

Even if allowed to exist, the Greek Catholics complain they are still denied access to the properties taken by the Communist regime. The government claims that 142 churches were returned to the Greek Catholic Church by 2000, while the Church itself claims only 136 churches out of its approximately 2,600 properties had been given back despite the scaling back of the Greek Catholic demands to 300 churches. Contacted in Bucharest on 2 October, an official of the State Secretariat for Cults, Adrian Argatu, was unable to provide Keston with up-to-date figures on the number of properties returned to the Greek Catholics. 'We don't have any chiefs here who can provide this information,' he declared. 'We don't have this information in our computers.'

In early 1990, a decree established that all the properties that used to belong to the Greek Catholic Church and which were then in the hands of the state, except for land, should be returned to the Catholic Church. In a subsequent government decision of 1992, a list of all goods to be returned was accepted under a protocol between the government and representatives of the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

However, the procedure established required the clarification of the legal status of the churches and of the parish houses which used to belong to the Greek Catholic Church and were used by the Orthodox Church after 1948. Joint commissions were set up to take into consideration the will of religious communities. The interdepartmental commission in charge of the negotiation process stated that the Greek Catholic Church is the real, legal owner of the land and religious buildings but also recommended that the executive take into consideration the number of adherents of each community when deciding to which community the former Greek Catholic property should be handed. The Greek Catholics argue that this made it impossible to reach a friendly agreement, and opened the door to arbitrary decisions by officials. (END)