ROMANIA: Controversial Law promulgated; legal challenges planned
Romanian President Traian Basescu has approved a controversial new Religion Law, despite calls from human rights activists and religious communities for it to be reconsidered. Challenges are planned in the Constitutional Court and, potentially, the European Court of Human Rights, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Adventist pastor Adrian Bocaneanu told Forum 18 that he is worried about the new ban on "religious defamation" and "public offence to religious symbols," as "the essence of religious freedom is to be able to express views on religious beliefs and to compare your religious beliefs with those of others." He stressed that the way the law is implemented is crucial. "If the law is interpreted to silence other religions and this becomes a pattern, this would be dangerous," he told Forum 18. "At present this does not seem probable." Other critics of the Law include the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church, the Baha'i community and the Baptist Union.
The Law completed a hasty passage through parliament on 13 December (see F18News 12 December 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=887) and the presidential website reported that it was promulgated by President Basescu on 27 December. However, the adoption of the Law gained little attention in the Romanian media – even though its rushed final stages broke parliamentary procedures (see F18News 15 December 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=889). "It was not a public issue," Iustina Ionescu of the Centre for Legal Resources told Forum 18 from Bucharest on 3 January.
As well as opposing the different levels of legal recognition for religious communities – which is one of the more controversial aspects of the Law (see F18News 7 October 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=669) - Seventh-day Adventist pastor Adrian Bocaneanu is also very worried about the new ban on "religious defamation" and "public offence to religious symbols." These provisions were introduced into the Law late in the parliamentary process. "We do not aim to speak out against the beliefs and religious practice of others – we aim to be respectful," he told Forum 18 from Bucharest on 3 January. "But the essence of religious freedom is to be able to express views on religious beliefs and to compare your religious beliefs with those of others."
Bocaneanu stresses that the way the law is implemented is crucial. "If the law is interpreted to silence other religions and this becomes a pattern, this would be dangerous," he told Forum 18. "At present this does not seem probable."
The Jehovah's Witnesses – who succeeded in hanging on to the recognition as a faith they gained in 1990 despite subsequent official attempts to revoke it and who claim 83,000 adherents in 540 congregations across Romania – are withholding comment on the new Law itself. "Only time will show if the enforcement of this law is against the rights of Jehovah's Witnesses," Florin Manoliu told Forum 18 from Bucharest on 3 January.
"This law is very restrictive," Pastor Ioan Ceuta, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church in Romania, told Forum 18 from Bucharest on 3 January. "It is aimed not to benefit the whole of society but selectively to help a few religious communities." Wargha Enayati, a member of the Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly, is equally critical. "The law is totally unjust," he told Forum 18 from Bucharest the same day. "We were hoping our problems – such as lack of recognition as a faith - would be resolved, but unfortunately this was not the case."
The Baha'is believe the adoption of such a law was to be expected, given what they regard as the dominance of the Orthodox Church and the strong pressure it exerted to have this law adopted. "This law is clearly based on their way of thinking."
Strongly backing the law was the dominant Romanian Orthodox Church and several other faiths (see F18News 31 January 2006 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=721). Bishop Christoph Klein of the German-speaking Lutheran Church told Forum 18 from Sibiu on 3 January that he is "pleased" the religion law has finally been adopted after sixteen years of discussion. Echoing government claims, he insisted (wrongly) that all but the Greek Catholic Church among the eighteen recognised religions had backed the law.
The Baptist Union – one of the eighteen recognised religions - has been consistently highly critical of many provisions of the Law (see eg. F18News 6 October 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=667). The Baptists are determined to try to mitigate what they see as the Law's worst aspects. "I fully support the idea to take further steps to the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg," the Union's president Paul Negrut told Forum 18 on 29 December. "It may take time and resources but I am confident that this barrier could be removed."
Forum 18 was unable to reach official spokespersons for the Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed, Old Believer, Muslim or Jewish faiths in Romania. Bishop Arpad Szabo of the Unitarian Church did not respond to Forum 18's request for his Church's views.
Both the Assemblies of God and the Baha'is are among those unhappy that in future any new community must wait twelve years and have 0.1 percent of Romania's population (i.e. more than 22,000 adherents nationwide) to be able to gain recognition as a faith, the highest of three levels of recognition. "If you read between the lines it is very clear that the intention is to make it impossible for any religious communities not currently recognised by the government to be able to attain this status," Pastor Ceuta told Forum 18. With only a few thousand adherents in its 128 congregations, he says his denomination cannot meet these criteria for recognition.
Enayati of the Baha'is points out that this requirement does not exist for the eighteen faiths that are already recognised, although several of them would not be able to meet this requirement. "We have more than 7,000 adherents and a history of more than 80 years in Romania – indeed, in 1926 our Queen Marie became a Baha'i," he noted. "We are an independent world religion with our own holy book – we are the most widespread religion after Christianity. We are not a branch of any other faith. This must be emphasised."
The Baha'is complain that it is already impossible for their members to respond to invitations from teachers to speak to school children about their faith. "Teachers ask us several times a year to go into schools, but the school directors always block such invitations, even for a half-hour informational talk about our faith," Enayati told Forum 18. "Directors have to be cautious." He also noted the problems religious minorities facing finding somewhere to bury their dead according to their own traditions, as most graveyards in Romania are controlled by the Orthodox Church, which often refuses burial to those of other faiths or insists that such burials must be conducted by the Orthodox Church according to Orthodox rites.
Pastor Ceuta of the Assemblies of God is also concerned that the law bars religious communities with similar names to existing recognised communities from gaining recognition. "There are more than forty different Pentecostal denominations, but only one – of which we are not a part – has official recognition at the moment. This means that other Pentecostal groups will never be recognised."
Ionescu of the Centre for Legal Reforms told Forum 18 that a coalition of human rights groups is planning to undertake strategic litigation to the Constitutional Court to challenge what it regards as some of the more restrictive provisions of the new law.
A printer-friendly map of Romania is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=europe&Rootmap=romani
15 December 2006
The passage of Romania's controversial new Religion Law broke parliamentary procedures, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Members of the Chamber of Deputies were not given the five days that Romanian law requires for them to consider the Law. Paul Negrut, who leads the Baptist Union and Evangelical Alliance, told Forum 18 that "it was totally against rules and procedures – like an avalanche." The Law – which has still not been published - now goes to Romanian President Traian Basescu, who has 20 days to sign the law, return it to parliament for further work, or refer it to the Constitutional Court. Negrut told Forum 18 that "If we get direct support from the international community, then the President will have the stamina to send it back to parliament." Adventist pastor Adrian Bocaneanu told Forum 18 of the need "to educate the political class on their responsibility to take a stand for the principle [of religious freedom] rather than an opportunistic approach."
12 December 2006
A sudden burst of speed to pass Romania's controversial new Religion Law through Parliament – which even the Romanian Orthodox Church was unaware of this morning (12 December) – is causing deep concern to religious minorities and human rights activists, they have told Forum 18 News Service. "Somehow, religious freedom has ended up being the tombstone of the nascent Romanian democracy," Romanita Iordache of Accept told Forum 18. Iustina Ionescu of the Centre for Legal Resources told Forum 18 that a coalition had appealed for the government to wait for an OSCE report, and that an appeal to the Constitutional Court will be made if the present draft Law is passed. The draft will be discussed in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies tomorrow (13 December). The government claims that the Law is a priority before Romania joins the European Union (EU) on 1 January 2007, but the EU Delegation in Bucharest has declined to confirm this to Forum 18.
17 July 2006
Despite Russia's constitutional guarantee of equality before the law for all religious associations, some regional state officials support the Moscow Patriarchate against other Orthodox organisations, Forum 18 News Service has found. Orthodox groups can experience unfair treatment in seeking state registration or in property disputes. Another example is the description of a Russian Orthodox Church of the New Martyrs priest, Fr Aleksandr Ganzinin, as a "common swindler," in a press release by a regional authority. This was after Fr Ganzinin had given the required notification of the church's intent to preach, distribute icons and candles and collect donations at a town's markets, and the local Moscow Patriarchate diocese's "confirmation" of Fr Ganzinin as an "impostor" not found among its clergy. An example of property problems is the transfer by a local authority of a church, in Zheleznovodsk, from the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC) to the Moscow Patriarchate. Local officials are often reluctant, in Forum 18's experience, to discuss favouritism of one Orthodox church over another.