Monday 22 November

by Felix Corley and Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

A draft law on religion presented by the Romanian government to parliament
in mid-September appears to render illegal and subject to heavy penalty
organised religious activity by groups that have not acquired state registration.
Although the bill is designed to replace Decree no.177 issued by the
communist regime on 4 August 1948, the Baptist Union of Romania recently
protested: 'In spite of all the obstructions and hindrances in the practical
freedom of religious life in the communist era�there was more democratic
provision than the stipulations of this draft.'

The bill - 'On the General Status of Religious Cults' - creates two principal
categories of religious organisation: 'cults' and 'associations'. (Note that the
Romanian word 'cultul' means simply creed, religion or denomination and does
not have the negative connotations of the English word 'cult'.) If passed, it
would automatically recognise 14 denominations as cults: Orthodox
Christianity, Roman Catholicism, the Armenian Church, the Old Believers, the
Reformed Church, the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, the
Lutheran Church, the Unitarian Church, the Baptist Church, the Evangelical
Church, the Pentecostal Church, the Adventists, the Jews and Islam.

Cults enjoy extensive privileges under the proposed law: the state encourages
financial contributions to them; they may take part in official religious services
on national or other holidays; their personnel are entitled to wages paid by the
state and state pensions; their representatives may attend as guests
parliamentary discussions on religious and various other matters; they may
conduct charitable work in collaboration with local authorities, NGOs and
individuals; they may provide religious instruction in schools and receive state
support in their ministry in prisons, hospitals, the armed forces and children's
homes; they enjoy free access to state mass media; they may run, and receive
state financial support for, their own educational establishments; they may
provide religious education within the state education system; their places of
worship, cemeteries and other property are tax-exempt; the production and sale
of their religious items is tax-exempt; they may receive technical and material
support in building places of worship and other institutions; their ordained
personnel are exempt from military service. These privileges are explicitly
denied to 'associations'.

It is all but impossible for a religious association or group other than the 14
recognised in the bill to achieve the status of cult. For this, the State Secretariat
for Cults (which in 1990 replaced the discredited Ministry for Cults - the
approximate Romanian equivalent to the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs)
demands 1) A list with the full name, age, identity-card data, address and
signature of each of the members of the prospective cult, which should make
up not less than 0.5 per cent of the population. According to the last census
(1992) this translates as 114,000 people. 2) A preamble 'justifying the reasons
for the establishment of the cult'. 3) A confession of faith. 4) A charter giving
details of the cult's structure, board of directors, activities, financial
arrangements and 'other provisions' regarding its organisation and activity.
(Article 23)

Even after all this information has been submitted, cult status is not granted
automatically, but 'by means of a decree of the president of Romania, upon
proposal of the government and on the basis of the recommendation of the
State Secretariat for Cults.' (Article 24)

GABRIEL ANDREESCU, co-president of the Association for the Defence of
Human Rights in Romania- Helsinki Committee, has pointed out that only
three of the 14 denominations granted the status of cult in the bill have more
than 0.5 per cent of the population: the Armenian Church, for example, has
only 4,000 adherents in Romania. Thus, any group aspiring to the status of cult
will have to overcome a hurdle that the 14 recognised cults did not have to
overcome; claiming 40,000 active members, the Jehovah's Witnesses are one
such group, and any attempts they might make to increase their numbers could
fall foul of an outright ban on 'aggressive proselytism of any sort' (Article 8).

Critics of the law have also pointed out that even Russia's controversial 1997
law on religion requires a religious body seeking registration to report only the
personal data and signatures of ten 'founders' - not its entire membership.

Even the 14 recognised denominations are subject to considerable state
interference: the bill fails to respect Churches as autonomous entities in its
allocation of cult status. As the 'Catholic Cult', for example, Greek and Roman
Catholics must conduct their activities on the basis of a common charter and
confession of faith (Article 31). They must share a single 'central
administration or representative board' (Article 15), the leaders of which -
metropolitans, archbishops, bishops and apostolic administrators are suggested
- must be 'Romanian citizens with permanent residence in Romania' (Article
27). Earlier this year the Serbian Orthodox Vicariate of Timisoara - which
under the bill forms the 'Orthodox Cult' together with the Romanian Orthodox -
raised objections to this last proposal - a stipulation which is also contained in
the 1948 law on religion. Although such a categorical statement is absent from
the present bill, the provisions governing the internal administration of cults
appear to follow a draft dated 22 January 1991, which stipulates: 'Each
denomination (cultul) shall have a single body of leadership which represents
the denomination as a whole.' (Article 24). The new proposal also states
(Article 23) that no group can be registered with the same or similar title as that
of an existing recognised cult.

Although Article 5 'recognises, respects and guarantees' the autonomy of cults,
the state appoints itself as mediator between them (Article 22) and enforces 'a
spirit of ecumenism, tolerance and mutual respect' in their relations with one
another: a prohibition on 'any act of defamation' would appear to rule out
accusations of heresy, for example, in this context (Article 8). (Incidentally,
this marks a significant departure from Article 19 of the 1991 bill, which in
many other respects resembles the current draft law. It stipulates that the state
'will mediate the relationship between the cults upon request.')

Some cults are more equal than others. Although Article 7 proclaims that 'the
religious cults are equal before the law', the degree to which the state supports
their activity (Article 7), grants them free access to state mass media (Article
39) and covers their expenses (Article 52) is dependent upon 'the principle of
proportionality'. The introduction of this principle once again appears to be a
departure from earlier drafts: Article 38 of the January 1991 text declares that
'any discrimination is prohibited' concerning free access by cults to state mass
media. The probable use of the 1992 census in applying the proportionality
principle would be controversial: According to CONSTANTIN JUNGA, an
Orthodox academic from Timisoara, 'the religious revival of 1989 is not so
notable now.' Many of the 86 per cent recorded in 1992 as Orthodox may in
fact have been nominal members termed as Orthodox by virtue of being ethnic
Romanian. In addition, many Greek Catholics (whose church had been
suppressed between 1948 and 1989) still identified with Orthodoxy in 1992 out
of fear of reprisals from the still-active Securitate: today they argue that their
true numbers are not 228,000 but well over half a million.

Even groups that have the status of religious cult may find it difficult to
establish local congregations under the bill. Under Article 15 'parish and cult
entities similar to cults' may obtain legal status in their own right only if they
have at least five per cent of the local population as registered with the City
Hall. 'This makes it virtually impossible for new fellowships to be started
officially,' Pastor OTNIEL BUNACIU, deputy general secretary of the
Romanian Baptist Union, told Keston, 'the present law - written in communist
days - does not require a minimal limit for starting a local church.' It appears
that the same article prevents local congregations of a recognised cult from
operating independently, as it states that 'central and local cult entities' -
according to Article 72 these are 'metropolitanate, archdiocese, parish,
congregation, church, monastery, congregation and the like' - must be
established and organised by and according to the charter of the respective cult.

The second category of religious organisation in the bill - association - may be
formed within a cult also only with that cult's 'prior approval' (Article 68). An
association may also be formed outside a cult, but for that it must have at least
300 members, of which two-thirds must be Romanian citizens, as well as
obtain the prior authorisation of the State Secretariat for Cults. For this, the
prospective association must submit 1) a list with the full name, age, address
and signature of the adherents; 2) a preamble 'justifying the reasons for the
establishment of the association;' 3) a charter 'which shall consist of the
religious doctrine and its form of manifestation' (Article 63). Once it has
received authorisation from the State Secretariat for Cults, the association must
still follow the legal procedure for obtaining the status of a legal personality
(Article 64); this is not outlined in the bill.

Most alarmingly, Article 67 appears to render any organised religious activity
illegal and subject to heavy penalty. It states that if an association engages in
religious activity without having acquired the status of a legal personality, it
'shall be punished with fines ranging from 50 million to 150 million lei [2,000
to 6,000 pounds sterling or 3,200 to 9,600 USA dollars] and with liquidation
under the terms of the law.' There are few countries in the former communist
world that have gone this far in punishing unregistered religious activity
(Uzbekistan is one, while Turkmenistan comes close).

As in the case of the 14 recognised cults, the bill states that religious
associations which had legal personality upon entry into force of the proposed
law must resubmit their charters and confessions of faith to the State Secretariat
for Cults, but it is unclear whether this is in lieu of the registration procedure
for new associations outlined in Article 63.

Many observers are disturbed by the influential role granted in the bill to the
State Secretariat for Cults. A cult must elect and appoint its administrative or
representative board and personnel according to its charter (Article 17), which
must be approved by the State Secretariat for Cults. In the registration
procedures for both cults and associations, the State Secretariat rules on a
preamble 'justifying the reasons for establishment' of the body concerned, a
ruling which observers fear might be made on subjective grounds. Although
the teaching staff in private religious educational establishments must possess
qualifications 'for a corresponding degree in state education' (Article 43), it is
the State Secretariat which reviews the teaching syllabuses presented by the
cults for school-age children - and the level of competency that its staff are
expected to obtain is not stipulated. In addition to the somewhat vague 'any
person whose legitimate rights and interests have been affected' (Article 26),
the State Secretariat is entitled to take to court any cult whose activity 'harms
national security, public order, public health and morals and fundamental
human rights and freedoms' (Article 6). If the court rules against the cult in
such an instance, the cult may no longer function - and the court's decision is

Regarding property, the bill does not specifically deal with restitution of
property confiscated from a religious group during the communist period
which is now in the hands of another religious group or in state or private
hands. Article 70 of an earlier draft is entirely absent: 'On the basis of this
present law, properties and assets of the churches which were nationalised or
taken by force, abuse or illegal decision since 1945 shall be returned to the
owners or their successors.' Instead, Article 48 states that 'religious cults�
have the right of ownership over [property] already existing or acquired with
their own means, state contributions or private donations', while Article 49
affirms that a cult's right of ownership over places of worship, monasteries and
cemeteries is 'inalienable'. It is unclear whether these articles refer to property
in the possession of the respective cults on entry into force of the bill, and thus
endorse the status quo. The only other article concerning property is 57, which
states that if at least half plus one of the members of one cult transfer to
another, the cult's property becomes that of the adopted cult; while if a minority
transfer, all property remains with the cult they have left, although they are
entitled to compensation. The Greek Catholics are especially concerned about
the restitution of the property confiscated by the state when it suppressed their
confession in 1948: most of this property was transferred to the Romanian
Orthodox Church.

The Romanian Orthodox Church has complained that the bill fails to grant it
the special status of 'national church'. Although the list of 14 recognised
religious cults includes it under the designation 'Romanian Orthodox Church -
National Church', this appears merely to reflect the self-designation of the
Church, which added 'National Church' to its title several years ago, rather than
constitute official recognition of any place of primacy. On 13 September
Patriarch TEOCTIST wrote to Prime Minister VASILE RADU to complain of
this lack of special status and to call for parliament to 'sanction the lawful place
and role the Church has in the life of the Romanian people', although at the
same time he denied that the Church sought a privileged status compared to
other religious groups.

Other religious groups, on the other hand, considered that the description in the
list of cults of the Romanian Orthodox as 'National Church' was tantamount to
recognition of a special status for the Church. 'Assurances were given that the
law will not give extra rights to any of the religious denominations,' Pastor
Bunaciu declared in a 12 October statement, 'this new provision not only means
that the Orthodox Church has special status by virtue of being national, but it
also implies that the other denominations are foreign implants in Romania and
do not really belong as legitimate expressions of Romanian religious

In addition to the content of the bill - which has provoked detailed complaints
from the Baptist Union and the Helsinki Committee - various religious groups
have expressed concern about the way in which the final text was prepared in
secrecy, ignoring months of negotiation among the currently recognised
religious cults aimed at producing a mutually acceptable text. For example, the
bill omits an article present in drafts since 1991 guaranteeing that no state or
government institution will carry out or support atheistic propaganda
programmes; it also makes harsher an earlier provision that 'when a new
denomination applies for registration, it must have at least as many members as
the least numerous religious congregation already registered.' On 7 October
Pastor Bunaciu confirmed to Keston that the Romanian government had made
'substantial alterations' to the bill before sending it to parliament: 'The final
document sent to parliament bore little similarity to the initial proposal.'

As a government-sponsored bill, 'On the General Status of Religious Cults'
would receive priority over bills presented by deputies, but as yet the
government has presented no timetable as to when it will be considered by
parliament. With parliamentary elections due next year, there are fears that the
government might spring discussion of the bill suddenly, but the government
appears to be equivocal in its support for the draft: ZOE PETRI, an adviser to
President EMIL CONSTANTINESCU, recently assured US officials that the
government recognised the problems in the bill and claimed that it was unlikely
to get very far. (END)

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(c) Keston Institute 1999