“Legislative shortcomings have helped create a drawn-out preliminary procedure capable of hindering the applicant parish’s access to a court,” the European Court of Human Rights said in a January 15 judgment.
The court said the Romanian government had violated articles of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. It ordered Romania to pay 23,000 euros to the Greek Catholic parish to cover damages and expenses.
The ruling concerned a case brought by Greek Catholics at Sambata in Romania’s northern Transylvania region, whose church was placed in Orthodox hands when their community was outlawed in 1948.
The Catholics said the local Orthodox parish had refused to allow them to share the building when their church was re-legalized in 1990, or to form a joint Orthodox-Catholic committee, as required by law, to discuss property issues.
“Accordingly, the applicant parish was treated differently from other parishes involved in similar disputes, without any objective or reasonable justification,” the Strasbourg-based European court ruled. “This was a violation of human rights regulations which prohibit discrimination.”
The Greek Catholic Church is loyal to Rome but shares an eastern liturgical and spiritual heritage with Orthodox churches. In Romania, the post-war communist regime forced the church to surrender 2,588 places of worship to state institutions or Orthodox parishes.
Inter-church ties in Romania have been tense since the 1989 collapse of communist rule because the Romanian Orthodox Church, which claims the loyalty of 87 percent of the country’s 22 million inhabitants, has refused to return confiscated Catholic properties. These include 1,504 parish houses, and 2,362 schools and cultural centers.
Although a Catholic-Orthodox commission was set up in 1998, a year before Pope John Paul II visited Romania, it made little progress and only 160 Greek Catholic churches were returned.
In February 2009, Greek Catholic leaders protested a draft law that would confirm Orthodox ownership over still-disputed Catholic places of worship. In a letter to Romania’s President Traian Basescu, the leaders said their church, “reserves the right to use all the legal means, domestic and international,” to obtain redress.
In an early January 2010 statement, Romania’s Orthodox patriarchate said it believed concerns about Greek Catholic properties were “artificial and exaggerated.” It said it was again seeking dialogue with the Greek Catholic Church.
The Greek Catholic bishop of Oradea, Virgil Bercea, told Ecumenical News International that ecumenical ties had deteriorated since the 2007 election of Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea. Bercea said he was worried Catholic Church members could also be denied access to Greek Catholic cemeteries, which could now be reserved for Orthodox burials.
“Even now, the Orthodox are waging a psychological war against us; it seems our government leaders do not appreciate the situation’s gravity,” said Bercea, whose church, according to government data, currently has 654,000 members compared with 1.5 million in 1948.