U.S. report points to religious discrimination, slow pace of church properties restitution

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The U.S. Department of State on Wednesday released the International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, pointing to the slow pace of religious property restitution in Romania due to the governmental institutions’ passivity, while slamming still existing local discriminating practices, anti-Semite accents and insufficient Holocaust recognition.

“Government restrictions and inaction affected minority religious groups across a broad spectrum of activities, preventing some groups from gaining official recognition and other groups from obtaining the restitution of previously confiscated properties. The Greek Catholic Church, in particular, could not obtain possession of many of its churches after authorities failed to enforce court rulings restituting them. Local officials, often under the influence of Orthodox clergy, continued to hinder the access of non-Orthodox religious groups to cemeteries. Minority religious groups and NGOs were concerned about the government’s implementation of the religion curriculum in schools, although they reacted positively to the government’s decision forbidding discriminatory statements in religion textbooks. Courts and local authorities responded positively to some requests to remove plaques and memorials to pro-Nazi World War II political figures, but negatively to others. The government continued to implement recommendations of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania and expanded Holocaust education in school curricula, reads the report.

The U.S. Department of State also notes that there were reports of a range of anti-Semitic incidents, including desecrations of synagogues, anti-Semitic sermons by Orthodox priests, Holocaust denials, and events commemorating former pro-Nazi leaders of the Legionnaire Movement. “In one well-publicized case, an individual advertised on the internet to sell a lampshade he said had been made from the skin of a Jewish victim of the Holocaust”.

The report shows there were several reports stating Orthodox clergy harassed Greek Catholic clergy and church members. “Members of some minority religious groups, including the Greek Catholic Church and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, reported cases of Orthodox priests who forbade the burial of non-Orthodox deceased in denominational cemeteries and public cemeteries. Minority religious groups said the media favored the Orthodox Church and disseminated negative reports about minority religious denominations.”

According to the report, the Romanian Government’s restrictions and inaction affected minority religious groups across a broad spectrum of activities, including preventing them from obtaining the restitution of previously confiscated properties, with the U.S. embassy officials raising concerns with the government about the slow pace of religious property restitution, particularly properties belonging to the Greek Catholic and historical Hungarian Churches. Jewish groups were concerned about memorials erected with the support or consent of local officials honoring the country’s pro-Nazi World War II figures. A number of minority religious groups were concerned over government implementation of laws regarding religion instruction in schools.

Eternal issue of the religious properties’ restitution

“The law provides for the restitution of religious properties confiscated between 1940 and 1989. The Jewish community additionally benefits from a statute restituting ethnic communal property. A 2013 statute extends from five to 10 years the period of time that current occupants are entitled to stay in properties used as hospitals and schools that have been restored to previous owners. The law, however, does not address the return of Greek Catholic churches confiscated by the former Communist government and transferred to the Romanian Orthodox Church in 1948. A separate statute permits the Greek Catholic Church to pursue court action when attempts to obtain restitution of its churches through dialogue with the Orthodox Church are unsuccessful.”

At the same time, the report tells that the government continued to refuse to return to the Hungarian Roman Catholic Church a building housing the Batthyaneum Library and an astronomical institute, despite a 16-year-old government emergency order restituting the building and a 2012 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordering the government to remedy the situation.

Harassment during religion classes

The Greek Catholic Church reported Orthodox religion teachers harassed Greek Catholic children, who had to stay in the classroom during the Orthodox religion class because religious instruction in their faith was not available.

On November 12, the Constitutional Court ruled unconstitutional the requirement for students to opt out of mandatory religion classes by submitting a written application. The court’s decision said students should be required to opt into religion classes, but per the constitution, left further action to change the law up to the parliament. As of the end of the year, awaiting the official publication of the court’s decision, the parliament had taken no action.

PM Ponta’s eyed for discriminating statements

On September 7, Prime Minister Victor Ponta reportedly said on a TV talk show that the impact of President Basescu’s 10 years in office was “similar to that of the Nazi regime on Germany.” Domestic and foreign politicians, civil society representatives, diplomats, the Federation of the Romanian Jewish Communities (FCER), and the Wiesel Institute issued statements critical of Ponta’s remarks. ActiveWatch, a human rights NGO, filed a complaint with the National Antidiscrimination Council (CNCD), saying Ponta had implicitly denied the Holocaust and trivialized Nazi crimes. On September 24, the CNCD decided the statement was within the limits of the freedom of expression.

During the presidential campaign that ran from October to November, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, while speaking as a presidential candidate, said he belonged to the majority Orthodox faith in comparison to Klaus Iohannis, one of his opponents who was an ethnic German and whom he described as “neo-Protestant.” Iohannis belonged to the Evangelical Church of Augustan Faith. Electoral fliers saying “We vote for Ponta for everyone’s good, we vote for a true believer, not for a neo-Protestant” were distributed in some areas.

Oprescu –Roman Catholic Cathedral row

The mayor of Bucharest continued to refuse to enforce a 2013 “final” court ruling to demolish an illegally constructed office tower next to the Roman Catholic cathedral. According to the ruling, the tower was deemed a risk to the physical integrity of the cathedral. In June the Roman Catholic Church filed complaints with the ECHR and the National Anticorruption Directorate, accusing the public servants in the mayor’s office of corruption and obstruction of justice. In July the Roman Catholic Church sent its 20th letter to President Basescu, asking for his support for the demolition of the building.

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