Spectre of religious persecution rising in Romania
Romanian Baptists cry out for help
By Brian Koonce
October 4, 2005
ARAD, Romania– Romanian Baptist leaders are asking for help to combat a law that could make it very difficult for Christians to meet, worship and live their faith. If left unchanged, the language in the former Communist country’s “religious liberties law” could:
• Cause churches of any denomination to receive funds through the government budget, making them de facto public entities.
• Cause private, denominational schools and universities to accept any student regardless of faith and teach any and all religions of those students.
• Confirm ownership of public cemeteries to the Eastern Orthodox church.
The secretary of the Christian Romanian Baptist Union, Onisim Mladin, called for prayer and support from 46 Missouri Baptists at a pastors’ conference in northwest Romania in September.
Articles encouraging state involvement with church funds are atop the list of things Romanian Baptist leaders say need to be changed. This creates a problem for the independence of the church from the state, Mladin said.
“Being a denomination that does not receive funds from the government puts us in a unique situation,” he said. “All others are financially dependent. Eighty percent of the salaries of Orthodox priests come from the national budget. It makes sense that the church might do whatever the government asks to make sure they continue to receive the money. We are the only ones who said ‘No, we want the Church to be completely separate from the state.’”
In the United States, churches of course receive no money from taxes and beyond that, money given to the church is tax deductible. The language in the proposed law does not provide for that.
“Let people support their own churches,” Mladin said.
Educating Romanian youth in private Christian schools and universities could also fall under attack if the law passes unchanged.
“It requires that we accept those with other religions and would force us to give those students their own teachers that will teach them their own religious beliefs,” Mladin said.
For example, he said that at Emmanuel University in Oradea, the private Baptist university and seminary hosting the Missouri Baptists, the faculty would be forced to teach as true everything from Hinduism to Islam to Mormonism should a student of those faiths want to enroll.
Third on their list of “grievances” is the issue of cemeteries. In most villages in Romania, the government proposed to give what used to be public land used for cemeteries to the Orthodox Church. In a land where travel by horse cart is still very common, the only option for burial is local cemeteries monopolized by the Orthodox.
“Our people have been stopped at the gate of the cemetery,” Mladin said. “The only way they can be buried there is if the Orthodox priest takes the body and performs their own rites and rituals before burial.”
The Romanian Baptists are lobbying for “community cemeteries” that are open to all faiths.
While the legislation could tear down an essential wall separating church and state, one particular sect seems to benefiting above all others. The Eastern Orthodox Church claims 87 percent of the Romanian population although much fewer than that are active members. Mladin said that whether or not the Orthodox Church directly influences governmental policy is open to debate, but catering to 87 percent of the voting population is tempting to any politician.
“It’s a political game that’s obvious to us,” he said. “The Orthodox Church creates influence in all the political parties.”
While the proposed law is cause for concern to Baptists in Romania, the move is garnering attention across the United States as well. Baptist Press reported that scholars at the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) called on the Romanian government to heed concerns about the potentially restrictive church-state legislation. On Sept. 21 in Nashville, Tenn., they adopted a resolution urging the Romanian Senate and other public officials to reconsider the proposed measure in light of objections raised by Baptists in the Eastern European country.
R. Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, and a fellow of the ERLC’s Research Institute, encouraged Southern Baptists to contact their senators and representatives about the religious liberty bill in Romania. Members of Congress may be contacted by phone through the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or by e-mail through the ERLC’s website, www.faithandfamily.com. Mladin asks that Missouri Baptists do the same.
Since Communism fell in Romania in 1989, the government has organized multiple meetings with denominational representatives in an effort to present legislation outlining the relationship between the state and denominations. Many of those proposals expressed democratic goals but included policies consistent with Romania’s more repressive history. Such is the case with this bill.
“We believe that the defense and preservation of free religious practice and conscience is essential to God’s blessings on any nation,” the ERLC’s resolution said. “In this light, we commend this most essential issue to God’s care and provision as well as to the deliberation of the elected leaders of Romania.”
The bill will be put to a vote in Parliament some time this fall, although it is unclear when. If approved by a two-thirds majority, it will be sent to the president to be signed and then will become law 30 days later.
Mladin said if the law passed with some clarifications and specific language addressing Romanian Baptist concerns, it could be beneficial in the long run. As it is now, however, it will present a problem
“Why do we need a law like this? There is no such law in the United States. In England, there is no such law. Just because we are in Europe and much of Europe has this type of law, this is not a reason for Romania to pass this law,” Mladin said.