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goston Berecz
Judging from the material I have had access to, the post-1989 literature on the history
of the Romanian Orthodox Church under the Communist regime seems to be doubly onesided. On the one hand, there have been a profusion of church-sponsored publications,
apologetic in character, which have focussed their attention to the persecution of the clergy
in the 1950s and the late 1940s, and through the detailed, but methodologically unsound
discussion of its sufferings, have presented the BOR as an indisputable victim of the entire
period.1 Maybe out of dissatisfaction with this sort of history-writing, the scholarly output
of researchers not engaged with or even critical to the BOR has tended if not to belittle, at
least to remain silent about the persecutions.
Second, while much has been written on the period until 1965, very little on the
Ceauescu regime. One could explain this imbalance by the nature of the archival sources,
but the lack of research into the role of the BOR under Ceauescu on the basis of the
accessible material nevertheless remains a pending debt. The scholarship has referred to the
religious policies of Communist Romania as an anomalous case; a hard-line Stalinist state,
which granted more freedom to its dominant Orthodox Church than any other country in
the Soviet camp. A few facts and mostly anecdotal evidence suggest, however, that the
experience of the BOR with National Communism was even more singular than its role in
the preceding decades.
On the following pages, my emphasis will necessarily fall on the Muscovite and the
Gheorghiu-Dej eras, but I will also sum up the important historical antecedents and at
times tentatively venture into the Ceauescu era. Within this time framework, my
1 As a shorthand for the Romanian Orthodox Church, I am using the common abbreviation of its Romanian
name, Biserica Ortodox Romn, to avoid the homonymy with the Russian Orthodox Church.

discussion will proceed thematically. Finally, in the concluding part of my paper, I will try
to point out the possible reasons for the divergence of Romanias religious policy from
other Communist countries.
Since their inception, the histories of the BOR and of the independent and unified
Romanian state had been connected to each other. The first head of the state, Alexandru
Ioan Cuza united the Wallachian and the Moldavian churches into one single hierarchy (the
autocephaly of the new church would be recognized in 1885), reorganised their dioceses
and confiscated the lands of the so-called dedicated monasteries. Later governments
definitely placed the Church under state tutelage by taking over the management of its
properties, paying salaries to its priests and monitoring their sermons. Indirectly, the
government also held sway over the election of bishops.
In Romania, much like in Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church was put
into the service of a speedy nation building process, as the only inherited institution with a
large personnel and a deep-rooted presence in the countryside. Orthodoxy was declared the
dominant religion, and in state nationalist discourse the Orthodox Church was refashioned
as an age-old depository of the nations identity. In exchange, the clergy was expected to
instil civic values and loyalty to the state and to the dynasty in the people. At the same
time, the Romanian clergies took on a still more important role as community builders and
as advocates of nationalism in the Kingdom of Hungary and in Bukovina.
In the inter-war period, references to Orthodoxy as the essence of the Romanian ethnos
became crucial to the dominant integral nationalist currents of thought, and most
notoriously, to the ideology of the fascist movement known as the Legion Saint Michael or
as the Iron Guard. The movement gained wide popularity within the Orthodox clergy, and
almost two thousand priests joined different legionary organisations. This engagement of
such a large share of the clergy with inter-war fascism would linger on as a dark shadow
until the end of the Communist era and would be creatively exploited by the party to its

own ends.
The Romanian Communist Party, on the other hand, was not only an illegal and
marginal political force in inter-war Romania, but was widely regarded as non-Romanian, if
not outright anti-Romanian. In particular, its exposure of Romanias territorial gains after
the First World War as machinations of bourgeois nationalism made it unpopular among
ethnic Romanians, who constituted a minority of its membership in contrast to Jews,
Hungarians, Russians and Bulgarians. Their participation in the coalition government lead
by the fellow-traveller Petru Groza from 1945 and their coup dtat in 1947 were
unthinkable without the presence of the Red Army and were seen by large segments of the
society as the coming to power of Jews and Hungarians. In the early phase of its rule, the
need to bolster its nationalist credentials certainly motivated the relatively liberal policy
of the party towards a duly intimidated and realigned Orthodox Church.
In the spirit of symphonia, the hierarchy of the BOR showed an apparent willingness to
accommodate themselves to the subsequent changes in power. After the royal coup on 23
August 1944, when the king arrested Prime Minister Antonescu and the country switched
sides to the Allies, Patriarch Nicodim quickly issued a pastoral letter, in which he assured
the believers and the new leaders that dictatorship in general and the Antonescu regime in
particular had been alien to the soul of the Romanian people, foreign to the traditions of the
country and forbidden by the teachings of the Church, that democratic freedoms were the
products of our Saviours Gospel and that Soviet Russia was our elder sister in the right
faith. A similar declaration followed the demise of the king by the Communists in
December 1947, in which Nicodim decided that the monarchy had been a burden to the
Romanian people and called the faithful to obey the Communist regime. In spite of these
conciliatory manifestos, the Communists had good reasons not to trust the old members of
the Church hierarchy. A likely majority of the clergy hoped at that time that the Soviet
occupation could not last for long and that they only had to weather a transition period

until the Americans would come and liberate the country. In order to make the BOR their
potential ally, the Communists had to replace its leadership with their reliable henchmen.
In the first years, between 1945 and 1948, a more or less random persecution of the
lower clergy took place, designed to inspire fear and to destroy support networks. As in
other new Socialist countries, they set up a Democratic Union of Priests for the most
zealous pro-Communist collaborators. In Romania, this organisation was lead by former
members of the legionary movement. While membership in legionary organisations
became sufficient ground for a sentence in prison, the co-option of prominent earlier
legionaries by the Communist Party and their appointment to high positions was meant as
a message for the clergy that by mending their ways and demonstrating complete
submission to the regime, they could get by under the new circumstances. Other notable
legionary priests turned into high-ranking collaborators included the writer Gala Galaction,
vice president of the Writers Union and Constantin Burducea, Minister of Cults in the
Groza government.
The protgs of the Communist Party inside the BOR were partly people blackmailed
into cooperation, partly old acquaintances of Communist leaders. Typically, they only took
their monastic vows a few days before they were ordained bishops. Justinian Marina, the
new patriarch from June 1948, was originally a humble parish priests who under Antonescu
had been hiding the new first secretary of the Communist Party, Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.
To get these people up the ladder, the new regime had to first get rid of the old hierarchy. A
massive wave of retirements swept over the higher ranks of the BOR in 19489, while other
bishops were put under house arrest, and at least three Orthodox hierarchs Patriarch
Nicodim, Metropolitan of Moldavia Irineu and Bishop of Hui Grigore Leu died under
suspicious circumstances.
In 19489, the burgeoning totalitarian dictatorship created a new institutional
framework for the BOR. In many respects, these changes were similar to what happened in

other new Socialist countries: censorship on religious publications was introduced, the state
took over the landed property of the Church and closed down confessional schools. At that
point, however, they did not restrict the number of monasteries, only obliged monastics to
engage in handicrafts. Similarly, the network of religious institutions that the Romanian
Communist state kept in place was relatively large compared to other Orthodox countries
in the Soviet bloc; thus the BOR was allowed to maintain three theological institutes for
secular priests (although one of them would be closed down in 1952), two seminaries for
nuns and one for monks, to preserve its canonical jurisdiction and to publish three nationwide and additional regional journals.
The highest state organ in charge of overseeing religious life in Romania retained its
status as a separate Ministry of Cults until 1958, when it was reorganised into a
Department of Cults. The new constitution of 1948 declared the freedom of worship, and no
longer recognized Orthodoxy as a dominant religion in Romania. In 1949, the Communist
state forced a new statute upon the BOR, so as to gain full command over church life. Lay
members, who made up two thirds of the Holy Synod, were from then on mostly elected on
the recommendation of the Party, but the Party became able to impose its will on the
college of bishops as well. To ensure the selection of the most subservient from among
seminary graduates, the new regulations made the appointments of newly-ordained priests
provisional for five years, during which they were expected to attend priestly conferences
and further missionary courses, mainly consisting of pastoral theology, notions of
Marxism-Leninism and the timely issues of the international fight for peace. At the end of
this five-year period, young priests were re-assigned to better or worse parishes
according to their grades.
The Communist state continued to pay monthly salaries to priests, with a parish
priests salary being roughly equivalent to that of a factory worker. From this respect, the
lot of priests in Romania was clearly superior to their colleagues in the Soviet Union, where

priests were obliged to make up their livelihoods from the contributions and the alms of
their parishioners.
Predictably, Patriarch Justinian went much farther than his predecessor in legitimising
the new ruling ideology. In his New Year address for 1949, he celebrated the regime as the
consummation of the Gospels message and wished to bridge the gap between Christianity
and Marxism-Leninism by painting the reality that the latter would bring about in bright
colours: Some consider materialism hostile to Christianity. We, however, judge men
according to their deeds and achievements. We judge doctrine according to the order of
society it produces. Can we not see in the present social order the most sacred principles of
the Gospel being put into practice? 2 He was an avid public speaker as well. The Social
Apostolate (Apostolatul social), the title of the multi-volume collection of the many
speeches he delivered during his long tenure in office, aptly summarises his personal
doctrine: the Church, as the servant of the people (Biserica slujitoare), must be also
subservient to the state. The state provides favourable circumstances for the Orthodox
Church to work, and is therefore entitled to use its authority as an ideological tool.
Romanian Communists in fact tried to harness the hold of the clergy on the people in
the service of their regime, probably much more systematically than their comrades in
other Communist countries. They expected village priests to explain and justify the changes
in the political and social life of the country, to appease public discontent over the
requisition of crop surpluses and to argue their flock into the agricultural cooperatives.
From April 1949, the Church became the mouthpiece of Communist propaganda with its
participation in the Soviet-led inter-Communist campaign for peace and the protests
against Western war-mongering.3 For some time in the mid-1950s, priests were even
forced to leave aside the spreading of superstitions and restrict their sermons at best to
questions of morality.
2 Quoted by Deletant, 213.
3 Cf. Chumachenko, 120.

As it happened at the same time in the Ukraine and in Slovakia, the Romanian state
outlawed the Greek Catholic Church in 1948, and turned the BOR an accomplice in the
process, which was officially masked as a return into the bosom of Orthodoxy. In
Romania, at the same time, the same measure got an interesting twist to it, as it could easily
be interpreted in the context of Romanian ethnicist discourse. Unlike Roman Catholics,
Greek Catholics in Romania were ethnic Romanians, who made up the majority of the
population in large, contiguous areas in the Northwest. Moreover, the claim that they were
in any sense less genuine Romanians than the Orthodox sounded very unlikely to them,
since Romanian national awakening in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth
centuries had itself originated from within the Transylvanian Uniate clergy. Inter-war
integral nationalist thinking, however, had taken up the official Orthodox standpoint on
Greek Catholicism and denounced it as the instrument of the Habsburgs to drive a wedge
into the national unity of Romanians. This prepared, Romanians from the Old Kingdom,
where no Greek Catholicism had existed, could regard the re-uniting of the two churches
as the Romanian national unity restored, however this interpretation may have seemed
improbable from Transylvania.
As a symbolic gesture, the act was announced in the National Reunification Cathedral
in Alba Iulia by Patriarch Justinian, with much pomp. Uniate churches passed into the
property of the BOR. Uniate priests could choose whether to join the BOR (where some of
them reached high posts as repenting Catholics) or to return to civil life. Many of them
(proportionately more than from the Orthodox clergy) were arrested and suffered long
sentences in prison. A significant part of the Uniate clergy refused to join Orthodoxy, defied
the threat and continued church life underground. After the Second Vatican Council, to
avoid Greek Catholic attendance of Latin-rite services, even the celebration of the Mass in
Romanian was under official ban in Roman Catholic Churches until 1978. The reunification was accompanied with an intense anti-Vatican campaign, and one of the tasks

of the newly-appointed Orthodox priests in their formerly Uniate parishes was to reeducate their faithful. Anti-Catholic propaganda did to a large extent substitute atheist
propaganda in Romania.
The persecution against the Orthodox clergy became more targeted after 1948. The
authorities not only cracked down on priests who opposed any aspect of the establishing
regime, but also wanted to extirpate independent thinking. Priests who had canvassed for
bourgeois parties before the 1946 elections, who resisted the collectivisation of the
economy and who refused to read out a speech about the Warsaw peace congress in 1950
obviously fulfilled these criteria, as well as members of revivalist movements. The most
popular such movement within the BOR, calling for spiritual reawakening through the
intensive study of the Bible, was the Lords Army (Hostea Domnului). Founded by Iosif Trifa
in 1923 in Sibiu, it had already come into conflict with the Orthodox hierarchy in the 1930s,
when Iosif Trifa was defrocked. The Communist power adopted the official Orthodox
assessment of the Lords Army as dangerous. With an ingenious trick, they coaxed the
leaders of the movement into filing a request for being recognised as an independent
denomination. Once the authorities received the petition signed by the local group leaders,
they arrested all the signatories.
Earlier affiliation with the legionary movement was, at the same time, more of an
excuse to try to recruit informers or imprison priests regarded as dangerous for some other
reason than a real motive for punishment. Certainly, many or even the majority of
incarcerated Orthodox priests had been members or sympathisers of the legionary
movement, and this fact constituted a charge against them. To the extent that in retrospect,
because of its aura of victimhood and anti-Communism, Legionarism provoked some
sympathy from former supporters of more moderate political parties as well. Nevertheless,
there were also former legionaries in the highest ranks of the BOR, such as the later
patriarch Teoctist Arpau, who had participated in the profaning and looting of a

Bucharest synagogue during the 1941 revolt of the Iron Guard. Patriarch Justinian, who
created some sort of personal dictatorship, also had a penchant for former legionaries in his
entourage, whom he could keep in check with the threat of revealing the details of their
past and putting them in jail. Orthodox theologian Nichifor Crainic, one of the foremost
ideologists of the legionary movement, edited a Communist propaganda organ aimed at the
Romanian emigration, after serving his time in jail. Finally, the term legionary became a
slur without any real content during the Ceauescu regime, which used it as an accusation
against diverse non-conformists, including Baptists, while its official ideology heavily
drew upon inter-war radical nationalism and it allowed thoroughbred legionary ideas to be
According to data collected by authors close to the BOR, 1.725 Orthodox priests were
imprisoned, interned or sent to concentration camps to the Danube Delta under the decades
of Communist rule in Romania, mostly during the two massive waves of persecution
between 194852 and 195860. In the framework of the latter, they also expelled from the
universities three hundred fifty students identified as church goers.
The sheer dimensions of Orthodox monastic life in Romania were unparalleled in the
Communist world. Actually, the number of monastics increased during the first decade of
Communist rule; from 5.564 monks and nuns in 206 monasteries in 1950 to 6.500 in 254
monasteries in 1958. Right in the beginning, however, they transformed all monasteries into
workshops. The state did not tolerate contemplative life. In every room, the inscription
work is prayer exhorted the inmates, and by selling their handicraft products abroad, the
state benefited from the surplus they produced.
The official line hardened in 1958, when the state put restrictions on the taking of
monastic vows; from then onwards, only men above the age of fifty-five and women above
the age of fifty were allowed to enter a monastery. This measure turned out to be mild
compared to the violent anti-monastic campaign of the next year. With the assistance of the

police and the militia, the authorities displaced around five thousand people, that is the
majority of monks and nuns from the monasteries, closing down many of these. Former
inmates were assigned forced domiciles and remained under police surveillance. The
situation would significantly improve under Ceauescu, when some monasteries were
reopened, others restored by the state and converted into tourist destinations, while many
of the active ones were allowed to receive staying guests during the Summer season.
Ceauescu officially visited one of Romanias foremost national shrines, the Putna
monastery on its five hundredth birthday in 1966. In 1973 there were 2.068 people living
monastic lives, still an impressive number in the Communist context.
Compared to other Communist countries, the relationship between the party
leadership and Patriarch Justinian was extremely friendly. The Patriarchate frequently
invited top-notch politicians to its exclusive and luxurious parties. It seems that the idea of
intermingling with archbishops (although these were mainly their own creations) flattered
at least some of the low-born Communist politicians. Incidentally, they might also harbour
religious feelings, but it was not advisable to show this in public. Former prime minister
Petru Groza, it is true, was buried with religious rites in 1958, but he was not in any sense a
member of the Communist elite. When later, in 1972, the burial service of Nicolae
Ceauescus father in his native Scorniceti was conducted by a bishop and thirteen priests,
and broadcast on television, that was already part of his new public self-image as the man
of the people, and did not imply anything about his religiosity.
In 1955, the BOR suddenly received green light for canonising eight new Romanian
saints, and the secular authorities even lent their assistance to organise the festivities. Such
an event was quite exceptional in the Communist camp, but it can be compared to the
canonisation in of Bulgarian proto-nationalists Paisiy Hilendarski and Sofroniy Vrachanski
in 1964 by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. 4 Like in the Bulgarian case, the nationalist
4 Kalkandjieva, 90.


overtones were evident in the choice of the new saints. Five out of the eight could be also
regarded as national heroes of anti-foreign resistance: eighteenth-century anti-Catholic
martyrs Visarion Sarai, Sofronie de la Cioara and Oprea Miclu and seventeenth-century
Transylvanian bishops Ilie Iorest and Sava Brancovici.
Until 1958, strong ties with the Moscow Patriarchate dominated the foreign affairs of
the BOR. Patriarch Justinian visited Moscow six times between 1948 and 1955. For the first
time since 1882, the BOR received Holy Chrism from abroad in 1949, but in contrast to the
previous occasion, when it had been brought from Constantinople, the now it was given by
the Moscow Patriarchate. Then from the late 1950s onwards, when Communist Romania
deviated from the Soviet line, it began to exploit its seemingly liberal religious policies to
boost its reputation in the Western world as a maverick Communist country, and the same
would fit even better the early Ceauescu era. Western visitors could not assess how much
freedom of activity the Orthodox hierarchy enjoyed, how far they gave in and how far they
resisted. At the same time, they were clearly impressed by the high attendance of services,
the apparent religiosity of the people and the possibilities of the BOR as compared to other
Orthodox churches in the Soviet sphere of influence.
Beside being a showcase for the regime, the BOR could provide other services on the
international scene, and it was the Romanian state that urged the BOR to enhance its
diplomatic presence. From the late 1950s, the BOR maintained friendly relations with the
Church of England, traditionally interested in Orthodox Christianity. The breakthrough,
however, came in 1961, when the BOR gained membership in the World Council of
Churches. It was also a major step for the Securitate, the Romanian secret service, as the
WCC elected into its Central Committee Metropolitan Iustin, a secret agent (and another
former legionary, for that matter).
From the outset, informer networks operated both in the clergy and in the seminaries,
creating a climate of intimidation and internalised policing, and fostering a spirit of

suspicion and mutual hatred. According to former Securitate officer Roland Vasilievici,
however, they only began to co-opt rank-and-file priests as secret agents in the 1960s, at
least in the Banat.5 On his account, around eighty percent of the priests collaborated with
the Securitate in the region, who were also expected to report on the confessions of the
believers. The question of secret police infiltration in the clergy under Communism has
been shrouded in an even deeper mystery than in Russia, and very few priests have come
out of the closet as former agents.
A privilege that very clearly set the BOR apart from most other Orthodox churches in
Communist countries was that in Romania, church buildings were being restored and new
ones were being built without interruption, although with ebbs and flows. Receiving a
permission was not easy and might involve using clout, but in Timi County alone, fifty-six
new Orthodox churches were erected during Communist times. Paradoxically, the
construction of new churches was on the rise under Ceauescu, whose systematisation
plans threatened thousands of existing churches with demolition, and whose
megalomaniac urban planning project in effect destroyed eighteen historical churches in
down-town Bucharest after the 1977 earthquake. 6 It is indeed telling of the BORs complete
subservience to the state that only Father Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa spoke up against
the pulling down of these churches, but his subsequent confinement in a psychiatry ward
and defrocking reveal the limits of free speech as well.
The nationalist profile of the regime became more pronounced after Ceauescus rise to
power, smoothly slipping into the grotesque by the 1980s. Orthodoxy as a protective force
of the nation gained in significance in this context. When attending political meetings, the
5 Stan and Turcescu, 789.
6 Some Orthodox churches were saved from demolition by being relocated. Adrian Drgan relates such a
story, documented by photographs, about the Orthodox church of Reia Romn village, which happened
to lie where the main place of the future socialist city Reia was to be built. Local comrades were warned
(allegedly by Ceauescu himself) that the church could not remain there, but they probably did not want to
provoke the believers. Therefore they put the church on rails, moved it eighty-two metres further and
erected a ten-story high prefab building to hide it from the main square. See Drgans post in Romanian on
the blog Banatul de Munte:


members of the Church hierarchy symbolically played the role of the living past, which
gave its blessing to the Leader.7 The guarantor of national unity was, however, the only kind
of public face the BOR could take on in the official sphere, and the state culture remained
strictly atheistic. While a commemorative postage stamp in 1971 presented the ruler
Stephen the Great as founder of the Vorone Monastery, the state allocated no paper for
publishing the Bible, when after protracted lobbying, the BOR received permission to
publish it.8
The years when the Communists grasped the power in Romania constituted a period of
relief in Soviet religious policy. At the same time, Romanian Communist had their own
reasons to control and not to stifle religion. In general, I think that it would be misguided to
compare the situation of Romania in 1948 with the Soviet Union, and it is only legitimate to
ask why the Soviet leadership tolerated Romanias deviation from their policies in the
1950s. Romania had not decimated its clergy and had not destroyed most of its churches
before the war; on the contrary, Romanian Orthodoxy had just passed through a phase of
revival. Romanian Communist did not have to face an influential migr church either. If
they could not cherish high hopes to gain the sympathy of the clergy, the bishops showed
compliance to the new rulers, either out of habit, or well-grounded fear. In the long run,
they could not present much danger for the regime, but had much to offer.
Romanians Communist could make their initial choice for secondary reasons, but it is
important here that in 1945 they were the weakest and the most unpopular Communist
party in any Soviet-occupied country, and were unscrupulously searching for allies in the
society. By the time they took the helm of the country, they had found a bunch of loyal
would-be hierarchs who could be entrusted with the task of policing the Church. Finally,
instead of trying to efface the branch of power that was arguably the most efficient in rural
7 Cf. with the the similar political exploitation of the Russian Orthodox Church under Nicholas I, Stalin and
Yeltsin, according to Sergei Borisovich Filatov; Daniel, 5961.
8 Cf. with the publication of Russian-language Bibles in the Soviet Union in 1955; Chumachenko, 139.


areas, they chose to dominate it. They invested much energy to intimidate the clergy, and
the result was wholly satisfying; an obedient, self-coercive Church, eager to penalize its

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