The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

The Romanian Church Rebounds from Repression

The Romanian Church Rebounds from Repression

After the shackles of the socialist regimes were broken, Eastern Europe took back the freedoms it had so long been denied. One of those was the freedom to worship. Under communism, religion was the target of oppression. Churches struggled for survival. Some priests and believers were jailed and tortured, churches were moved or destroyed to make room for new buildings. In Romania, as in all communist countries, God was both ridiculed and persecuted.

Yet once the revolution came around, Romanians ran to embrace spiritual freedom. One of the slogans chanted by the crowds in 1989 was “Cu noi este Dumnezeu!” (“God is with us!”). This was the cry of a supposedly atheistic country, yet it was a direct reference to the Orthodox Christian chant of the same name sung during holy mass.

A recent study shows how badly atheism failed to take hold in the Eastern bloc. More than 90 percent of Romanians identify as Christians, with 86 percent of them belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church. From Russia, with its 71 percent Orthodox majority, to Moldova, with 92 percent, to Poland, with 87 percent of the population identifying as Catholic, the East is Christian. The only exception seems to be the Czech Republic, where 72 percent are unaffiliated.

Of course, affiliation does not necessarily translate into church attendance. It is a multifaceted matter that also reflects a sense of national identity that goes back thousands of years. This is why many in the East feel closer to Russia and Greece than they do to Germany, for instance. Weekly church attendance is not mandatory in the Orthodox faith, but churches are full for Christmas, Easter, and the other important holy days in the Orthodox calendar. The religious traditions and rituals that mark the year form part of a complex process of perpetuation both for identity and religious feeling. These practices keep communities closely knit and were a major reason why people proved resilient in the face of communism.

The Romanian Orthodox Church has had much experience with invading powers and oppression, since its founding, as tradition has it, by the Apostle Andrew more than 2000 years ago. While the communists ruled the country, the Securitate (secret police) were their eyes and ears. They were everywhere, from government offices to hospital rooms. They made sure that the church was under strict surveillance and bureaucratic control. The regime also controlled the appointments of bishops and members of the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, and made sure the Church was governed by friendly patriarchs. There were also priests who signed collaboration agreements with the secret police. People knew this and resented them for it.

However, many priests merely feigned collaboration in order to keep the church functioning. They sang the regime’s praises to protect their flocks. It was a game of cat and mouse in which “collaborators” tried to outsmart their overseers. The church knew not to bring political charges against their congregations. Instead they filled their obligatory reports with politically irrelevant information.

For the socialist state, those who kept to their faith were resisting atheism and collectivism and indulging in “obscurantist mysticism.” Some found refuge and strength in movements like Rugul Aprins, the “Burning Bush,” a community of intellectuals and monastic clergy centered on Bucharest’s Antim monastery. Because their moral and intellectual formation directly opposed Marxist materialism, the group was seen as a threat to the regime and some of its members were incarcerated. Even though it may not have had a long life, the movement bore witness to how important faith was and how dangerous it looked to the socialist system. Another similar movement is Oastea Domnului (“The Army of the Lord”), which was founded in 1923 and still exists today. There were also outspoken dissident priests, like Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa, who openly criticized the communist “philosophy of despair” and criticized the Ceauşescu regime for demolishing churches.

When communism fell, spiritual bondage ended and religion took back the central role it had always played in societal life. The unaccustomed freedom after the fall of communist rule allowed much interplay between politics and the church in a way that had been impossible before. Some priests became directly involved in politics and certain parties used religion as a tool in their campaigns.

Today, Romania has a majority religious population, and it is interesting to note that even its Social Democrat Party (PSD) is quite the staunch defender of the church, at least on the surface, and has even drawn much criticism for using religion as a means to win elections. Looking at the situation at present, one can see how much religion meant to the Romanian people, before, during, and, after communism. The oppressive regime did not manage to break the sound bonds of tradition and belief. The intricate symbiosis from which these bonds stem has proven stronger than any empire or despotic government’s attempts to extinguish them. Romanians care for the salvation of their souls as well as the peaceful existence of their country. However, the ways in which these two matters are attended to differ greatly. As Romania embraces the future, it is clear that the country is still working on finding the right balance between church and state.