Overview, Updates and Latest Figures on Failed Religious Property Restitution in Romania

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February, 2023

Read HHRF Executive Director, Emese Latkoczy’s overview, and the latest updates and figures, on failed property restitution to religious denominations in Romania, as presented at the “Preserving Identity in the Face of Oppression: Religious Freedom and National Identity in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia” conference  organized by Freedom and Identity in Central Europe (FICE) and the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) on February 2, at the Meridian Center in Washington D.C.

 

Conference on 

Preserving Identity in the Face of Oppression: Religious Freedom and National Identity

in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia 

International Meridian Center, White-Meyer House 

Thursday, February 2, 2023 

[Full length] Presentation by 

Emese Latkoczy, Executive Director 

Hungarian Human Rights Foundation 

 

33 Years of Failed Property Restitution: 

 

The Forgotten Religious Injustice in Romania 

 

Since 1989, Romania has failed to fully restore 16,430 properties to religious denominations illegally confiscated from them between 1945 and 1989. Who are these groups? What we commonly refer to as the four historic Hungarian churches (Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed/Protestant, Lutheran and Unitarian), the Greek Catholics and the Jewish community. We consider these “minority religious denominations.” In the case of the Greek Catholic denomination and the Jewish community, we are also speaking of church/synagogue buildings themselves. [Lastly, the total figure includes churches and buildings taken from the majority, Romanian Orthodox church as well.] 

But in the case of the Hungarian minority, it is the buildings that comprised their civic and charitable institutions, some maintained for hundreds of years prior that are at stake. Prior to communism, as part of their missions, these religious denominations operated networks of hospitals, schools, orphanages and other social institutions, contributing significantly to the fabric and functioning of society.  Beginning 1945, the state confiscated these from their rightful owners, usually continuing to operate the same sort of institution in them. 

By way of background, I would clarify that the largest national minority in Romania is the Hungarian, living in the region of Transylvania, and that in Romania, ethnic and religious affiliation overwhelmingly coincide. The majority of ethnic Romanians are therefore Romanian Orthodox, and Greek Catholics are by and large ethnic Romanian. 

The confiscation of buildings from secular/civic organizations, as well as private property, also occurred under communism. While these so called communal buildings were addressed under different legal provisions than those of religious properties, it is the same official body I will speak about later handling these claims as well. The numbers in this regard are even more dismal. 

We refer to Romania’s failure to fully restore – whether through compensation or restitution in integrum – these properties to their rightful owners as the forgotten religious injustice in Romania.       

This is not an abstract injustice but a severe, continuous and complex rights’ violation affecting the daily lives of millions of people.  An entire generation of these ethnic Hungarians, Greek Catholics and Jewish youth has grown up since 1989 denied the full means and resources to build democracy, civil society, and express their religious convictions.  This protracted injustice is at once a violation of religious, minority, property and economic rights. 

 

Let’s look closer at the components of this violation and how it occurs  

While some countries in the former Warsaw Pact took swift, though it can be argued unfair or inadequate steps to restitute and/or compensate religious denominations, the Romanian state –regardless of which government was in power – had a few half-hearted, incomplete attempts, which weren’t implemented in either case. Finally, in 2002, a comprehensive law (No. 501) was adopted. Even if we take that year as ground zero, more than two decades have passed since this, I might add flawed law to being with, was adopted. Incidentally, prior, in April 2002, my Foundation and representatives of the Hungarian minority in Romania met with Prime Minister Adrian Nastase in Bucharest to give the government a final push to adopt the law. The Romanian authorities obliged as it was important for them not to have negative press in the wake of NATO and EU accession. Predictably, after joining these two bodies, the restitution process slowed, stopped, proceeded and then reversed with even renationalization taking place in some cases, as I will detail below.  

Today, an unconscionable thirty-three years after the fall of communism, a mere 16.64 percent of total claims having been positively decided for these religious denominations. 

The evidence clearly shows a track record of deliberate and cynical actions by the Romanian authorities to deny justice. The totality of the state’s action and inaction shows that its true agenda is NOT to compensate the rightful owners fairly, nor return these properties to them for their use. Ultimately, the goal has been to return as few as possible, placing undue financial and human resource drains on the religious denominations as they battle the state for their rights, while the latter protracts and undermines the process indefinitely. 

 

This so-called restitution process has been characterized by the following failings:

1. Neglect, delay and obfuscation.

2. Fundamentally flawed legislation and implementation. Namely:

a) The burden of proof and action is on the victim. So, there is no presumption of abusive transfer. While it is the state in possession of all the confiscation documents, it has forced the churches to file claims and procure the documentation to back-up their claims, which of course it can reject for lack of evidence.

b) there is no compensation for demolished properties

c) Occupants of restituted buildings can remain in the buildings for up to 10 years. Hence the inability in many cases for the religious denominations to carry out the functions/missions, I mentioned in the beginning, while de facto being deprived of full use of their assets.

d) The claims have been processed by what is currently a seven-member committee delegated from various ministries and agencies [NAPR, Minority Affairs Office (DRI), Finance, Justice,  Interior, Regional Development, State Secretary for Religious Affairs] to the National Authority for Property Restitution’s (NAPR). In the past there have been years when it simply has not convened, the process deliberately protracted with light agendas, a lack of resources for expeditious processing. NAPR has limited competence. If it rejects a claim, that decision is final, but otherwise its decisions can, and are attacked in the courts, subverted by interested parties; its track record obviously favors the state.

How else has prompt, fair and full restitution been undermined by the state?

3. Certain important properties have actually been renationalized after being restituted. I will give an example below. And probably most significantly:

4. Civil servants of the above-mentioned body who tried to implement the rule of law have been legally persecuted and scapegoated, as well as leaders of the Hungarian churches, who are continually targets of official, judicial harassment for exercising their rights. 

 

Unsurprisingly, the impact of these scandalous measures, especially on the Hungarian minority, is fear and silencing. 

The numbers speak for themselves. I will summarize the status of all claims until the end of 2022. 

Between April 29, 2022 and December 15, 2022, NAPR’s positive decisions for claimants grew by 95. Meanwhile, the negative decision growth was 291. Our source is official data obtained from NAPR. 

Today, the negative or unresolved claim numbers and percentages break down as follows:

The total number of rejected claims is 8,030 or 48.87%

The number of claims NAPR has compelled the churches to withdraw is 1,125 or 6.84%

Transferred to “other authorities” for resolution is 1,242 or 7.55%

On backlog is 2,977 or 18.11%

Lastly, 322 claims are being litigated.

 

To sum up: In the 8 months period, 75.38 percent of claims were decided against religious denominations. The percentage of positive decisions grew by 0.58 percent, while negative decisions were three times higher at 1.78 percent.  

Thus, since NAPR’s inception, the overall average of positive decisions for the claimants is still only 16.64 percent. The main concern is no longer the number of claims on backlog but the disturbing upward trend of rejections, forced withdrawals and transfers of competence  

When we take a deeper dive into the 2,559 claims submitted by the four historic Hungarian churches, we see that 58.78 percent of these properties are still not fully restituted by the state. Less than half of all the claims they submitted were either returned, compensated or a combination of both. Drilling down deeper, we see a dismal 747 properties actually returned, therefore only 29.19 percent of all their claims. 

I submit that justice is not NAPR’s mandate. Rather, it favors the State with the intent of especially retaining valuable properties for it. For the past few years, NAPR has added a newer pretext for rejecting claims: alleging that Hungarian church claimants and the original owner are not the same legal entity, nor legitimate successors. 

 

I will now briefly highlight four institutions as prominent examples of this ongoing gross injustice. 

The most emblematic case demonstrating the state’s deliberate obstructionism, and likely financial motives, is the fate of the Batthyáneum Library. 

After a 23- year legislative battle, the Romanian Supreme Court delivered its most lethal blow for religious property restitution in May 2021 when it ruled against the Alba Iulia Roman Catholic Archdiocese’s claim for the library and Astronomical Observatory. The Church’s battle is now, for the second time, before the European Court of Human Rights, meaning several more years before any hope of justice being served can be expected.  

By far the most significant and valuable property, at stake is also the Library’s collection of 65,000 volumes, including a priceless Charlemagne-period bible. 

Already in 2012, the European Court found for the Church. Cynically, the state paid the 25,000 euro fine, three years later mind you, but never returned the property. Rather, the state has aggressively pursued its interests and forced the rightful owner into decades of futile litigation. 

 

The best known case of persecution is of Attila Markó, an ethnic Hungarian, former Member of the Romanian Parliament and NAPR member who was falsely charged with “official abuse of power” for deciding to return the Székely Mikó Protestant High School in the town of Sfântu Gheorghe to the Hungarian Reformed Church. The building had been confiscated in 1948 and restituted in 2000. Nevertheless, in June 2012, 12 years later, the court sentenced three members of the NAPR involved in the decision — Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim — to three years of imprisonment.  Markó was forced to resign from the Romanian Parliament, fled the country, as did Marosán, while Clim’s sentence was ultimately suspended. 

The plight of this institution, the Székely Mikó High School, is the most notorious example of re-nationalization. For the fourth time in 70 years, this property has been stolen from its rightful owner, setting a dangerous and chilling legal precedent in the country. Here too, following a 2018 Romanian Supreme Court rejection, the church had to take its claim to the European Court of Human Rights as the last recourse, where it languishes.  

 

The struggle for the Wesselényi Reformed High School in the town of Zalău is also going on 20 years, returned to the Romanian Supreme Court for the second time after the town’s mayor, in January 22, appealed the lower court’s decision to restore the property to the church. In short, the state aggressively pursues legal action until it gets the decision it wants.  

Meanwhile, in August 2021, the regional Prosecutor’s Office initiated criminal proceedings against the two highest ranking leaders of the affected Church, Bishops Csűry and Kató. The prelates deny categorically deny the charges of falsifying documents, giving bribes and misusing a forged document, which hang like Damocles swords over their heads. The message is clear trying to reclaim nationalized church properties is an extremely dangerous business in Romania. 

 

Lastly, the case most in the news in another one that went to the Supreme Court, the Hungarian Roman Catholic School in the city of Târgu Mureș 

 

In May 2022, the court upheld a decision to dissolve the Hungarian Roman Catholic High School. Romanian extremist organizations had twice brought suit against the reconstituted institution first established in 1702, and nationalized by the communists in 1948. Although the school building was restituted on paper in 2004, the church never was able to take full possession of its property. Why? The local court dissolved the reconstituted institution in 2017 after a legal challenge by the county prefect representing the national government. Then, in August 2018, it seemed a ministerial decree which allowed the school, as well as a Romanian Orthodox Theological Lyceum in another town (Timisoara) to be established, resolved the problem. But the Supreme Court shot that down. Past fall a local, temporary work around was found so that denominational high school students could study in Hungarian, but this is not a permanent, acceptable solution. ] 

 

Action, Prospects, Policy Recommendation 

For three decades, the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, including myself personally, have been the lead NGO advocating to end this multi-pronged human rights violation. 

The first, and to  lesser extent, subsequent US Special Envoys for Holocaust Affairs took it upon themselves to deal with the broader religious/minority property restitution as well. In the 2000s, at our initiative, an informal Property Restitution Working Group consisting of the Envoy’s office, our foundation, members of NAPR and the Hungarian churches met online regularly. In the US Congress, Rep. Tom Lantos spearheaded efforts paramount of which was HRES 191 unanimously adopted in 2005, so after the failings of the Romanian law were self-evident. Its mandate is still in effect today; successive Romanian governments simply ignore it. After Mr. Lantos death, Congresspersons Harris and Kaptur have taken up the mantle vis-à-vis the State Department, especially calling attention to individual persecutions. The Office for International Religious Freedom ostensibly took over this issue from the Special Envoy and, as of late, the annual Country Practices Report also acknowledges the slow and inadequate progress. 

 

Though never a high visibility issue deemed urgent by any government, clearly and understandably a fatigue set in a while ago, even among the well-intentioned. And I firmly belief that this has been a goal of the Romanian authorities. Additionally, at a human level, it is admittedly difficult to devote sustained energy and attention to this violation when confronted with the daily reality of horrific religious persecution for beliefs worldwide. 

 

Nevertheless, even if it’s flying under the radar, this is an entrenched, flagrant human right violation unacceptable in any democratic country. I submit that we can’t speak of genuine, complete religious freedom in Romania as the long as religious institutions and leaders are actively derailed in this manner from carrying out their missions by being robbed of their assets and future. 

 

If there was ever an issue exemplifying the adage “justice delayed is justice denied,” this is it. And the prospects for ending this injustice decrease the more time passes unless a concerted effort to propel resolution of this issue into the spotlight, elevate it to the highest levels within Romania, and place it front and center of bilateral relations by the U.S. is launched. To our knowledge, the U.S. has never required a clear-cut action plan, with firm deadlines and goals, from our democratic ally and strategic defense partner. Yet, this is a wholly reasonable expectation would have a high probability of success, should the political resolve exist.  

 

HHRF Summary Document on Failed Religious Property Restitution in Romania

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May 2022

HHRF Summary Document on Failed Religious Property Restitution in Romania has been updated. Please read full report here or read below:

32 YEARS OF FAILED PROPERTY RESTITUTION:

THE FORGOTTEN RELIGIOUS INJUSTICE IN ROMANIA

Introduction

0.56 % – this is the percentage by which Romania managed to raise its success rate since our last, July 16, 2021 report on failed minority religious property restitution. Comparing the official data obtained from the Romanian restitution body (referred to as NAPR, National Authority for Property Restitution) by the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, we can see that in the past 10 months the Romanian authorities have raised their game by 0.56 % and to date resolved whether through restitution in integrum or through compensation – only a fraction (16.06 percent) of the 16,424 religious properties illegally confiscated by the State between 1945 and 1989.

The Numbers Speak for Themselves

Comparing the two batches of first-hand data obtained on July 8, 2021 and April 29, 2022, we see a gloomy pattern emerging: the negative decisions outnumber the positive ones by far. In the past 10 months the NAPR: 4,138 (25.1%)

  • rejected 655 more claims, thus their total number grew to 7,754 (47.19%)
  • constrained the churches to withdraw 24 more claims, thus this number reached 1,117 (6.79%)
  • sent 23 more claims to “other authorities” for resolution, thus this number is now 1,235 (7.51%)
  • has 3,363 (20.46%) claims on backlog
  • In addition, 322 claims are being litigated.

IN SUM: 61.49 percent of claims have been decided against minority religious denominations. Ten months ago this number was 2.19% lower and “only” 59.3 percent. The percentage of the positive decisions grew by 0.56%. The growth of negative decisions was four times higher (2.19%). 2,559 of the total confiscated buildings were taken from four historic Hungarian churches – Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed (Protestant), Lutheran and Unitarian. These consist of former schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social institutions. For the past 32 years, 58.92 percent of these Hungarian minority properties are still not fully restituted by the state.

The Persecution of Religious Leaders and Civil Servants Carrying Out Their Duties

Hungarian Roman Catholic School in Târgu Mureș

In May 2022, the Romanian Supreme Court upheld a decision to dissolve the Hungarian Roman Catholic High School in the city of Târgu Mureș /Marosvásárhely. Romanian extremist organizations had twice brought suit against the reconstituted institution first established in 1702, and nationalized by the communists in 1948. Restituted on paper, in 2004, the church has never been able to take full possession of its property. The local court dissolved the reconstituted institution in 2017 after a legal challenge by the county prefect representing the national government. Hope arose in 2018 when a Hungarian-Romanian bilateral agreement was reached on the school, and an August ministerial decree allowed the school, as well as a Romanian Orthodox Theological Lyceum Timisoara/Temesvár to be established. The recent Supreme Court decision clearly discriminates against Hungarians since there have been no legal challenges to the Romanian-language school. (Read more details in the FUEN report)

Wesselényi Reformed High School

On August 24, 2021, the latest intimidation attempt aimed to halt the Hungarian Reformed Church’s legal battle to reclaim the Wesselényi Reformed High School in Zalău/Zilah, the regional Prosecutor’s Office initiated criminal proceedings against Romania’s two Reformed bishops: István Csűry, Bishop of Királyhágómellék Diocese and Béla Kató, Bishop of the Transylvanian Diocese. Both high prelates were summoned to the Zilah prosecutor’s office on suspicion of falsifying documents, giving bribes and misusing a forged document, charges they categorically deny. The restitution process was perversely confused by the charge against the two Bishops, sending a clear message to everyone involved that reclaiming nationalized church properties is an extremely dangerous endeavor in Romania. After 19 years, the fate of the property is back to square one. The NAPR refused to return the school building, so the decision was challenged by the Diocese. The church lost the case, but later the Supreme Court nullified the original verdict and sent the case back for retrial. On December 2, 2021 the Court of Appeals in Cluj-Napoca ruled in favor of the church but on January 3, 2022 the Zalău/Zilah Mayor’s Office appealed this decision, thus the case has returned to the Supreme Court.

The case of the Wesselényi High School is linked on numerous levels to a similar institution a couple of hundred of miles to the East: the Székely Mikó Protestant High School in Sfântu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy.

Attila Markó, an ethnic Hungarian and former Member of the Romanian Parliament, was falsely charged with “official abuse of power” for deciding to return the Székely Mikó Protestant High School to its rightful owner, the Hungarian Reformed Church. The building had been confiscated from the Church in 1948 and the decision to return it was straight-forward. Nevertheless, in June 2012, the court sentenced three members of the NAPR involved in the decision — Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim — to three years of imprisonment. Due to this, Mr. Markó was forced to resign from the Romanian Parliament. Several Members in of Congress wrote to Secretary Kerry on their behalf in 2013 and 2014, to no avail.

Székely Mikó High School

On November 22, 2018 the Romanian Supreme Court ruled for the state and renationalized the Hungarian Protestant High School in the town of Sfântu Gheorghe, leaving the European Court of Human Rights as the only recourse for justice. For the fourth time in 70 years, this property has been stolen from its rightful owner, setting a dangerous and chilling legal precedent in the country: First nationalized in 1948, the NAPR restored the property in 2000 to the Church. Nationalized again in 2012 after the State began criminal proceedings, the courts took the school away from the Church, and sentence the 3 members of the NAPR for their decision 12 years prior. In 2016, it was nationalized for the third time. In 2018, the Romanian Supreme Court denied the rightful owner’s appeal, thus nationalizing the institution for the fourth time.

The Batthyáneum Library

After a 23- year legislative battle, the Romanian Supreme Court delivered its most lethal blow for religious property restitution in May 2021 when it ruled against the Alba Iulia Roman Catholic Archdiosece’s claim for the Batthyáneum Library and Astronomical Observatory.

By far the most significant and valuable property, the Library’s collection of 65,000 volumes holds 1,650 incunabula (printed books before 1501) counting for three quarters of all such books in the country. The most valuable piece in the collection is the Codex Aureus a hand-written Bible from the Charlemagne period considered priceless.

In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg found for the Church (ECHR Decision 33003/03), stating that Romania had violated Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights by delaying the restitution of the building for 14 years. Cynically, the state paid the 25,000 euro fine in 2015, but never returned the property, continuing to aggressively pursue its interests and force the rightful owner into decades of futile litigation.

Summary: What needs to be done to achieve genuine religious freedom in Romania?

After 32 years of delays and obfuscation, apathy and fatigue in achieving complete, fair and equitable religious property restitution is understandable.

The US State Department acknowledges the following in the 2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in Romania, “While the pace of resolving restitution cases at the administrative level increased, the number of properties returned involving churches and national minorities was disproportionately low. The number of cases resolved annually has remained approximately constant over the past three years (an average of 1,300), but the number of positive decisions remained extremely low. Religious communities disputing these rulings continued to go to court and incur additional costs. As of October there were 3,852 pending requests for restitution from religious denominations.” Awareness of this issue is only step one, and it is time we double down on action for change.

As an ally and strategic defense partner of the United States, this entrenched human rights violation must be elevated to the highest level, placed front and center of bilateral relations. Establishing a clear-cut action plan with a firm timetable is a reasonable expectation, and a reachable goal, if the political resolve exists.

HHRF Summary Document Prepared for International Religious Freedom Summit

July 16, 2021

The single most important religious freedom issue haunting Romania since the fall of communism (1989) is the obstruction of religious, civic, educational, property and minority rights for minority religious denominations. For an unconscionable three decades, the Romanian authorities have failed to restore – whether in integrum or through restitution – but a fraction (15.52 percent) of the 16,424 religious properties illegally confiscated by the State from their rightful owners between 1945 and 1989.  

The Numbers That Speak for Themselves

According to first-hand data obtained July 8, 2021 by the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, the official Romanian restitution body (referred to as NAPR, National Authority for Property Restitution), it has rejected 7,099 claims (43%), constrained the churches to withdraw 1,093 (6.65%) claims, sent 1,212 claims (7.73%) to “other authorities” for resolution, and has 4,138 (25.1%) claims on backlog. In sum, 59.3 percent of claims have been decided against minority religious denominations.

  • 2,554 of these buildings (housing schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social institutions) alone were taken from the four historic Hungarian churches – Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed (Protestant), Lutheran and Unitarian. 
  • For the past 31 years, 65.20 percent of theseHungarian minority properties are still not fully restituted by the state.

Hostile Actions Against Minority Religious Institutions

The evidence clearly shows a track record of deliberate and cynical actions by the Romanian authorities to violate the rights of the four historic Hungarian churches, the Greek Catholic and Jewish communities. This is done by not only through neglect, but inadequate legislation and implementation, renationalizing certain properties after restituting them and, most significantly, legally persecuting and scapegoating civil servants who try to implement the rule of law in regards property restitution. Fear and silencing are the impact of these scandalous measures, especially on the Hungarian minority, which is the victim of simultaneous ethnic and religious discrimination in Romania.

  • The failure to give back these buildings and institutions to their rightful owners is not an abstract injustice but a severe, continuous and complex rights’ violation affecting the daily lives of millions of people. An entire generationof ethnic Hungarians, Greek Catholics and Jewish youth has grown up since 1989 denied the full means and resources to build a democracy and civil society. 
  • The National Authority for Property Restitution’s (NAPR) mandate is not justice. It is to decide for the State and in actuality not “relinquish” valuable properties. For the past few years, NAPR has a newer pretext for rejecting claims: alleging that Hungarian church claimants and the original owner are not the same legal entity, nor legitimate successors. 
  • U.S. governmental action? Successive Romanian governments simply ignore Congressional resolutions, State Department letters, and intervention by the special envoys. Spearheaded by Congressman Tom Lantos, H.Res 191 was already unanimously adopted in 2005, 16 years ago, calling on the Romanian government to provide “equitable, prompt,  and  fair  restitution  to  all  religious  communities  for property  confiscated.” Its clauses are still in effect  today!

The Persecution of Civil Servants Carrying out Their Duties

Attila Markó, an ethnic Hungarian and former Member of the Romanian Parliament, was falsely charged with “official abuse of power” for deciding to return the Székely Mikó Protestant High School in Sfântu Gheorghe to its rightful owner, the Hungarian Reformed Church. The building had been confiscated from the Church in 1948 and the decision to return it was straight-forward. Nevertheless, in June 2012, the court sentenced three members of the restitution committee involved in the decision — Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim — to three years of imprisonment. Due to this, Mr. Markó was forced to resign from the Romanian Parliament. Several Members of Congress wrote to Secretary Kerry on their behalf at the time to no avail.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: THE MOST EMBLEMATIC AND EGREGIOUS CASES

Székely Mikó High School

On November 22, 2018 the Romanian Supreme Court ruled for the state and renationalized the Hungarian Protestant High School in the town of Sfântu Gheorghe, leaving the European Court of Human Rights as the only recourse for justice. For the fourth time in 70 years, this property has been stolen from its rightful owner, setting a dangerous and chilling legal precedent in the country

First nationalized in 1948, the NAPR restored the property in 2000 to the Church. Nationalized again in 2012 after the State began criminal proceedings, the courts took the school away from the Church, and sentence the 3 members of the NAPR for their decision 12 years prior. In 2016, it was nationalized for the third time. In 2018, the Romanian Supreme Court denied the rightful owner’s appeal, thus nationalizing the institution for the fourth time.

The Batthyáneum Library

After a 22- year legislative battle, the Romanian Supreme Court delivered its most lethal blow for religious property restitution in May 2021 when it ruled against the Alba Iulia Roman Catholic Archdiosce’s claim for the Batthyáneum Library and Astronomical Observatory. By far the most significant and valuable property, the Library’s collection of 65,000 volumes holds 1,650 incunabula (printed books before 1501) counting for three quarters of all such books in the country. The most valuable piece in the collection is reportedly worth 10 billion USD.

In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg found for the Church (ECHR Decision 33003/03), stating that Romania had violated Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights by delaying the restitution of the building for 14 years. Cynically, the state paid the 25,000 euro fine in 2015, but never returned the property, continuing to aggressively pursue its interests and force the rightful owner into decades of futile litigation.

What needs to be done to achieve genuine religious freedom in Romania?

After 31 years of delays and obfuscation, apathy and fatigue in achieving complete, fair and equitable religious property restitution is understandable. Yet, it is not enough for U.S. Embassy and State Department officials to simply “continue(d) to advocate for improved property restitution processes,” as the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report on Romania states. As an ally and strategic defense partner of the United States, this entrenched human rights violation must be elevated to the highest level, placed front and center of bilateral relations. Establishing a clear-cut action plan with a firm timetable is a reasonable expectation, and a reachable goal, if the political resolve exists.


Failed Religious Property Restitution in Romania

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November 8, 2018

U.S. State Department 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom in Romania Inadequately Conveys Abysmal Record on Rights for Minority Religious Denominations

The U.S. State Department’s 2017 Report on International Religious Freedom for Romania falls short in emphasis, detail and unambiguity on the single most important religious freedom issue haunting the country since the fall of communism in 1989: the obstruction by successive Romania governments, official bodies and the judicial system of full religious, civic, educational, property and minority rights for minority religious denominations. For an unconscionable three decades, the Romanian authorities have failed to restore – whether in integrum or through restitution - more than but a fraction of the 13,379 church properties illegally confiscated by the State from their rightful owners between 1945 and 1989.  

The Report does not place into context the severe, continuous and complex nature of these interlocking violations of rights affecting the daily lives of millions of people in Romania. The failure to give back these buildings and institutions to their rightful owners is not an abstract injustice. A sense of the multi-faceted loss to huge segments of Romanian society is missing from the Report:  the fact that an entire generation of ethnic Hungarians, Greek Catholics and Jewish youth was born and has grown up since 1989 without being able to fully exercise its rights and know its cultural legacy; has been denied the full means and resources to build democracy and civil society because they do not possess their churches or  synagogues; cannot attend their centuries-old schools; and cannot develop hospitals, libraries and other  institutions that rightfully belong to them. 

The evidence clearly shows a track record of deliberate and cynical actions by the Romanian authorities to violate the rights of the four historic Hungarian churches, the Greek Catholic and Jewish communities. Not only through neglect, obfuscation, inadequate legislation and implementation; interference in the judicial system, ignoring the decisions of supranational entities, actually renationalizing certain properties after restituting them but, most significantly, by legally persecuting and scapegoating ethnic Hungarian and other civil servants who try to implement the rule of law as regards property restitution. The effects of fear and silencing impact these scandalous measures have, especially on the Hungarian minority which suffers both ethnic and religious discrimination, cannot be overstated. Yet, the 50,000-word Report mentions the word “Hungarian” merely twice.  

Three decades of injustice in a seemingly intractable issue has by now had a profound, perhaps permanent negative impact on all aspects of Romanian society. Thus, a concerted, international effort by both government and non-governmental stakeholders is indispensable if any modicum of justice is to be done. 

Alarmingly, the U.S. State Department seems to be effected by apathy in prioritizing this injustice in its bilateral relations with Romania. While naming its other laudable efforts on religious issues, as specifically regards Hungarian and Greek Catholic religious property restitution, one vague and brief sentence opens Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement of the Report: “The embassy raised its continued concerns about the slow pace of religious property restitution with the general secretary of the government.” Here, too, the Report does not layout the context of countless U.S., namely Congressional initiatives stretching back decades aimed at resolving this injustice, including H.Res 191 from 2005, which continues to require that the Romanian government fully restitute properties illegally confiscated from religious denominations after 1945.   

The fact that Romania is an ally and strategic defense partner of the United States should provide additional incentive for both countries to put this issue front and central of their bilateral relations. A clear-cut action plan with a firm timetable is not an unreasonable expectation, nor an unreachable goal given enough resolve. 

For further details, please read the latest report from HHRF, updated December 10, 2018, and entitled “Church Property Restitution – the Dark Shadow Obscuring the ‘Bright Future’ of  U.S.-Romanian Bilateral Relations.” 

December 10, 2018

Church Property Restitution – the Dark Shadow Obscuring the “Bright Future” of  U.S.-Romanian Bilateral Relations

On June 9, 2017, at their joint White House press conference, President Trump applauded Romanian President Klaus Iohannis for his courageous efforts in Romania to fight corruption and defend the rule of law,” speaking of the “bright future” between the two nations. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for Romania’s 1.5 million ethnic Hungarian minority and the country’s Greek Catholic and Jewish religious minorities who, since the fall of communism, continue to be denied full religious, minority and property rights. 

  • Clearly, the Romanian President was not called to account for the scandalous 29-year failure of each successive government to restore more than but a fraction of the 13,379 church properties illegally confiscated by the State from their rightful owners between 1945 and 1989. 
  • Apparently, President Trump was not appraised that the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 instructed the Department of State to report, within 90 days of enactment, on steps taken by the Government of Romania and the State Department to restore confiscated church properties to their legal owners, and that the ensuing report contained false information propagated by the Romanian authorities.1 
  • Nor did President Iohannis have to explain the definition of rule of law in which a corrupt judiciary can collude with the state anti-corruption prosecutor (DNA) in persecuting civil servants for carrying out their official duties, re-nationalize a Protestant high school already legally restored to its rightful owner, and take orders from the government not to adjudicate the 18-year running Batthyaneum Library case. These issues were reported in the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 and 2017 2 

The harsh reality is that the State Department is aware of the gravity of the situation, but at the same time, out of solutions to resolve the increasingly multi-faceted and entrenched human rights violations suffered by these religious denominations. As the year of the socially divisive centennial of Romania’s national holiday (the 1918 declaration by Romanians to unify Transylvania with Romania) draws to an end, anti-Hungarian sentiment is on the rise.3 

Thus, renewed efforts are needed to achieve justice for these beleaguered religious minorities, with particular focus on the violations summarized below.  

The Numbers That Speak for Themselves 

  • According to the Romanian Government’s own restitution body (referred to as NAPR, National Authority for Property Restitution, by the State Department) 14,814 is the total number of properties illegally confiscated from religious denominations by the Romanian communist regime in the 1945-1989 period.  
  • 2,140 of these buildings (housing schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social institutions) alone were taken from the four historic Hungarian churches – Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed (Protestant), Lutheran and Unitarian. 
  • 29 years after the 1989 Romanian Revolution and the overthrow of communism, 66.13 percent of these Hungarian minority properties is still not fully restituted by the Romanian state. 4 

The International Religious Freedom Reports for both 2016 and 2017 released by the U.S. State Department confirm a complete shutdown of any forward movement to return properties to their rightful owners. In 2016, the Report states “The government rejected more than 1,000 restitution claims for previously confiscated religious properties and approved 28;” while “as of December [2017] the government rejected 980 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 26.” These numbers are for all the affected religious denominations – the four Hungarian historic churches, Greek Catholic and Jewish. 

Our first-hand sources in Romania confirm that this preposterous situation remains unchanged in 2018. 

How is this possible? 

While the National Authority for Property Restitution should be accelerating the pace at which it approves claims, it has placed additional roadblocks in the process for the past three years. 

The State Department International Religious Freedom Report for 2017 notes that “the Reformed, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Evangelical Lutheran churches said the government continued to reject their restitution claims on the grounds the entities registered as the former property owners were not the contemporary churches. Church leaders said the communist regime had dismantled the former church entities while confiscating their property, meaning the former property owners no longer existed as such but the contemporary churches, as the successors to the dismantled churches, were in effect the same entities whose property had been seized” (page 13).  

This latest ploy began in 2012, but since at least May 2016 the Romanian authorities have been falsely insisting that this is not the case. Specifically, during the preparation of the report mandated by the afore-mentioned Omnibus Act, the Romanian authorities insisted to the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest that Parliament had adopted a law5 that eliminated all impediments to returning all the outstanding properties not yet restored to the four Hungarian historic churches and, as a result of the new law, those hundreds of claims filed Churches where title was jointly shared with auxiliary church institutions would no longer be rejected. 

In fact, the new law did nothing of the sort and had nothing whatsoever to do with the genuine impediments faced by religious denominations. Already in a June 2016 visit to Washington D.C., Bishop Béla Kató of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and subsequently the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (representing the Hungarian minority politically), as well as HHRF staff on the ground in Romania, all confirmed that information received and reported by the State Department from official Romanian sources was false. 

So, what does this new law (No. 103/2016) actually do? 

  1. Paves the way for those claimants who were forced to “donate” their properties during World War II and the communist era to now file claims.  
  2. Establishes continuity of ownership of communal property by recognizing certain present-day inheritors of same as legitimate.  
  3. Accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors. 

None of these provisions remove the roadblocks used to deny the four historic Hungarian Churches’ rightful claims.6  Most importantly, what is missing entirely from the new law is a provision to unequivocally stipulate that properties confiscated by the former communist regime must be returned to the legal successors.  

Based on these facts, the only logical conclusion is that the Romanian authorities were deliberate in their attempt to mislead U.S. officials. Meantime, the Special Restitution Committee continues to reject hundreds of claims by the Hungarian churches under the pretext that the claimant and the original owner are not the same legal entity or its true successor.  In the last three months, the Roman Catholic Church was denied restitution and possession of three schools: the high school in Gyulafehervár/Alba lulia, the Marianum in Kolozsvar /Cluj_Napoca and the Szacsvay Imre Elementary School in Nagyvarad/Oradea. 

The Romanian State persecutes those civil servants on the Special Restitution Committee who faithfully carry out their duties, according to law

Ethnic Hungarian former Member of Parliament, high-ranking Romanian government official, and member of the Special Restitution Committee Attila Markó’s tribulation began in 2010 when he was falsely charged with “official abuse of power” for deciding to return the Székely Mikó Protestant High School in Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe to its rightful owner, the Hungarian Reformed Church. The building had been confiscated from the church in 1948 and the decision to return it was straight-forward. Nevertheless, Romanian prosecutors fabricated an indictment, and in June 2012, the court sentenced three members of the restitution committee involved in the decision — Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim — to three years of imprisonment. The witch-hunt did not stop there: later on, Mr. Markó was forced to resign from the Romanian Parliament, his reputation ruined and even further besmirched by false allegations of impropriety in other property-related cases where he wasn’t even involved. 

Why does the Romanian Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) want to destroy Mr. Markó’s reputation at all costs and put him behind bars?

The answer is unsettling: he had to be silenced because he fulfilled his duties on the Special Restitution Committee too effectively; too many properties were returned to the historic Hungarian Churches during his tenure. 

This assertion is underpinned by official statistics from the National Authority for Property Restitution: In the six years since the above-mentioned three civil servants were sentenced in 2012, the Committee has rejected 87.2 percent of all claims submitted by religious denominations (including Greek Catholic and Jewish): 

Total number of claims: 3,381 
Rejected by Committee 2,936 
Compensation Provided 108 
Restitution Granted 71 
Withdrawn by Claimants 233 

The reason behind the large percentage of negative decisions is self-evident: Fear. Current members of the Special Restitution Committee do not want to risk unjust prosecution and possible imprisonment for doing their job (well) as did Markó, Marosán and Clim In fact, for years the government could not fill the seven positions on the Committee. Rather, they deny most claims submitted by the four historic Hungarian Churches for the return of their schools, kindergartens, orphanages, and so on. 

The undeniable reality is that the Romanian authorities are taking advantage of a legitimate and warranted anti-corruption struggle and achieving their obvious goal: to return as few properties as possible to the four historic Hungarians Churches, Greek Catholic and Jewish denominations. 

The Romanian State simply re-nationalizes high-profile and valuable religious properties to assert their power over minorities and set legal precedents 

On November 22, 2018 the Romanian Supreme Court ruled for the state and the renationalization of the Hungarian Protestant High School in the town of Sfântu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy, leaving the European Court of Human Rights as the only recourse for justice. For the fourth time in 70 years, this property has been stolen from its rightful owner, setting a dangerous legal precedent in the country

First nationalized in 1948. The Special Restitution Committee restored the property in 2000 to the Church. 2012, nationalized a second time. Twelve years later, the State begins criminal proceedings, the courts take the school way from the Church, and sentences the 3 members of the National Authority for Property Restitution for the original 2000 decision. In 2014, the appellate court upholds the decision of the lower court. 2016, nationalized for the third time. The Church again submits a claim to the Special Restitution Committee in April 2016, which denies it in June. The last domestic recourse, the Supreme Court of Romania, denies the Church’s appeal two years later, on November 22, 2018, nationalizing the Székely Mikó High School for the fourth time in 70 years.  

In an interview given to the Hungarian Press Agency (MTI) Bishop Béla Kató expressed his indignation about the ruling, which brands the victim a “crook and thief” when, in fact, it is the state appropriating what it has no legitimate claim to.  

Overt judicial interference by the Romanian government to keep properties for the State deemed too valuable (monetarily or prestige) to relinquish 

Since 1998, the Romanian authorities have done everything in their power not to give back the renowned Batthyaneum Library and Astronomical Observatory to the Roman Catholic Church. True, the institution is of inestimable cultural, historic and bibliophile value (the Codex Aureus it houses is alone reportedly worth 10 Billion USD), but its rightful owner is the Archdiocese of Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár.7 

Even though on September 25, 2012 the European Court of Human Rights fined and ordered the Romanian State to hand over the property (ECHR 33003/03), ever since the Church has been forced to file numerous lawsuits and appeals to the Special Restitution Committee to seek compliance. In April 2016, at the behest of the Romanian government, the Alba Iulia Court of Appeals indefinitely postponed ruling in the case. Then, more than two years later on July 4, 2018, the Court rejected restituting the library to its rightful owner. The Roman Catholic Church has had to file yet another appeal, now to the Bucharest Supreme Court. 

Similar to other high-profile, valuable properties rightfully belonging to the Hungarian historic Churches, the authorities (whether the government and its affiliated agencies, or the judiciary) continue to delay, deny and simply cherry-pick those aspects of the law and the restitution process that serve its interests, thereby preventing return of the Batthyaneum to the rightful owner.8  

Major Legal Milestones in the Roman Catholic Church’s Efforts 
to Regain the Batthyaneum Library 
1998.  Emergency Government Ordinance (EGO) No. 3/1998 orders that the Batthyaneum Library and Astronomical Observatory be returned to the Roman Catholic Church. 
Restitution never happens. On September 29, 1998, the local branch of the then ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) brings a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, the Romanian Academy and the Government of Romania.  
2002. After a legal dispute lasting five and a half years, on March 7, 2002, the court recognizes the Archdiocese’s right of ownership over the library and the observatory. In response, the Romanian authorities refuse for the second time to hand over the property. 
2012. Ten years later, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg decides on the Church’s appeal.  On September 25, 2012, the Court rules (ECHR 33003/03) in favor of the plaintiff, stating that Romania has violated Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights by delaying the restitution of the building for 14 years. Furthermore, it rules that the Romanian State pay 25,000 euros compensation for non-material damage.  
2015. The government pays the fine but does not return the property. The Archdiocese repeatedly petitions the Special Restitution Committee to abide by the ECHR decision and approve legal title and possession of the Batthyaneum Library. Three years later, the Committee rejects the Archdiocese’s request (in a vote of 6 nays, 1 abstention), on September 16, 2015.  
On November 12, 2015, the Archdiocese yet again files a lawsuit against the Special Restitution Committee’s decision. 
2016. At the behest of the Romanian Government, on April 26, 2016, the Alba Iulia Court of Appeals announces an indefinite postponement of the case. 
 2018. On July 4, 2018 after 23 postponements in the case, the Alba Iulia Court of Appeals rejects restitution of the library to its rightful owner. The Roman Catholic Church now has to appeal to the Bucharest Supreme Court. 

Conclusion  

Demonstrably, the assault against the Hungarian minority, its religious institutions, and other minority religious denominations is being orchestrated at the highest levels of the Romanian government, and that is where it has to be stopped. 

As the major force behind pressing the Romanian government to adopt anti-corruption measures, the United States has the credibility to tell the Romanian government it has over-reached and its actions must be reversed to serve the intended original purposes. 


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