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The area of what is now Romania was inhabited as early as the Bronze Age by the polytheistic Geto-Dacians. The Roman emperor Trajan conquered it with his troops in 106 AD. The troops settled down in the area and led to the Geto-Dacians’ acceptance of the Latin language (Romanisation) and the Christian faith (Christianisation). The Latin language and Christian faith may be seen as key factors in “contributing to the consolidation and merger of indigenous people and those who had come to Dacia from different places with different faiths”. The new province was called Dacia Traiana around that time.
The oldest diocese in today’s Romania is the diocese of Tomis (today: Constanţa), which was first mentioned in official records in 369 AD. In the beginning of the 6th century, there were an additional 14 dioceses mentioned in Scythia Minor. Two important figures for Christianity came from this region. One is Saint John Cassian who is the author of the West’s first monastic rules. The other is Dionysius Exiguus who translated important writings by Church fathers into Latin and laid the foundation for the Anno Domini dating system, by calculating Christ’s birth year.
The next major phase in the development of the Romanian people was the Slavic invasion of the Byzantine Empire between the 6th and the 9th centuries. The influx of Slavs in the Daco-Romans’ area loosened the bond between the inhabitants north of the Danube and those south of it. However, because Romanisation and Christianisation had already taken place, the new Slavic population was assimilated by the Daco-Romans. The influences were reciprocal: while the settlers became Christians, the strictly Roman language of the Daco-Romans was modified by the Slavic language, e.g. by way of introducing Slavic words into the liturgy or by switching to the Cyrillic alphabet.
When, in the 14th century, the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia were founded south and east of the Carpathian Mountains, ecclesiastic organisation followed soon thereafter. In Wallachia, a metropolitan was installed in Curtea de Argeş in 1359, and a second one in Severin in 1370. The first metropolitan in Moldavia was founded in 1386 in Suceava. As princely centres, they were important cultural centres and the monasteries and church buildings are world- renowned even today, mainly for their architecture and frescoes. There are records of further dioceses founded in the 15th and 16th centuries.
During the later rule of the Ottomans (at the beginning of the 18th century), the Sublime Porte introduced Phanariote rule in Moldavia and Wallachia which inhibited or rather delayed those two Principalities’ processes of national liberation. These Greek princes from Constantinople ruled the two Principalities from 1711 and 1715 until 1821 on behalf of Turkey. During the middle of the 18th century, an increasingly nationalistic consciousness emerged, but only the War of Liberation of 1877-78 led to an actual break from Ottoman rule and the re-establishment of independence. This paved the way for creating a nation state as well as a Romanian national church.
While still under Ottoman rule, the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia were finally incorporated into one nation state, today’s Romania, by the ruler Alexandru Ioan Cuza (1859-1866). This also led to ecclesiastical changes. Firstly, both metropolitan churches were unified as one national Orthodox Church. The Metropolitan of Bucharest received the title “Primate” of Romania. In 1872, the Holy Synod was established as the central administrative organ. Yet Romania remained canonically dependent on the “Mother Church of Constantinople”. This dependency was terminated only in 1885, when the Romanian Orthodox Church received autocephaly. This marked the ultimate independence from Constantinople.
In 1918, the provinces of Bessarabia (27 March), Bukovina (28 November) and Transylvania (1 December) united with the Kingdom of Romania to form one Romanian State. The establishment of an independent Patriarchy in 1925, with Miron Cristea as first Patriarch of Romania, can be seen as “the result of national unity, but it can also be seen as the natural illustration of the role that the church has played in the history of the Romanian people”.
Legislation for Great Romania on the rights and duties of ecclesiastical communities became of the utmost importance in the new reality. On 31st March 1928 Parliament passed a Law on Cults. Article 1 of the law held as a core principle: “The State grants all Churches the same freedom and protection, insofar as their practice of religion does not violate the public order, moral law or the system of government”. Besides the Romanian Orthodox Church, the law listed eight communities: the Romanian United Church, the Catholic Church (with Latin, Ukrainian and Armenian Rite), the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, Unitarian Church, the Armenian Church, the Jewish cult community and Islam. For other communities, movements, sects etc., Article 22 contained the possibility of recognition “if their articles of faith and their moral-religious principles do not conflict with the public order, moral law and law of the State and when their system of organization, leadership and administration is in accordance with this Law”.
Preparations for a Concordat between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Romania had been started by Romanian politicians in the hope of acquiring territory north of the Carpathian Mountains immediately after the war (1920). Negotiations began shortly after the end of the war. In the summer of 1921, a treaty text was drafted, which greatly outraged Orthodox circles in old Romania. Ratification was significantly delayed because of continued strong opposition by the Orthodox side, and the Concordat only became effective on 7 July 1929, long after the Law on Cults had been promulgated.
The Act of 23 August 1944 brought deep social, political and economic changes. After that date, the majority of political forces in the country tried to return to the path of democratic development, but “games” of other powers marked Romanian history for the next 50 years. Through the installation of the so called “democratic government” in Romania on 6 March 1945 “the communist-atheist regime was inaugurated in our country”.
It was normal for political changes to be reflected in the life of the Church. The Church became a “tolerated institution”, which could only find its place on the borders of society. This new reality forced the Church to adapt to the new age. The Church’s administration had two options: either to fulfil its full mission (i.e. also insist on social services, which would have led to a conflict with the new government) or to accept the state’s interference in its administrative life, but thereby retain the possibility of fulfilling its ecclesiastical mission.
The ROC chose the second option because it was aware of the Russian-Orthodox Church’s experiences. It had chosen the first option which in turn had provoked politicians and had brought them one step away from being abolished. The second option mentioned above allowed the Church to retain the possibility of being active among the faithful. Avoiding conflict with the government meant that the Church stopped giving differing opinions or publicly commenting on what happened in the country or its prisons.
After the communist takeover, communist policies were carried out. However, the 45 years of communism do not form a uniform era in Romania’s history. Initially, from 1948 until 1963, Romania was Sovietised. 1963 to 1978-1982 saw a time that led to a “mutt”: national communism. From then until December 1989, a cult surrounding the leader in the form of a Romanian Stalinism developed.
The Church was forced to live in a “liturgical ghetto”. The Church’s organisation was put under the strictest state control and the Church was thus subjugated. First, “cleansings” happened by which Church leaders and reactionary clerics were put into prison or silenced. On 22nd July 1947 the Moldavian Metropolitan Irineu Mihălcescu was forced to abdicate. In 1947 a law was passed that forced all priests over 70 years of age to retire. Anyone who went against the government in any way was severely punished. In 1948, the Patriarch Nicodim as well as the Metropolitan Irineu Mihălcescu and the bishop Grigorie Leu died under mysterious circumstances. This created the opportunity to elect a person to the Patriarchal See, who understood the “new times”. This man was Justinian Marina, who was first elected Metropolitan of Iaşi (1947), and then, on 24th May 1948, became Patriarch.
In 1989, the wave of anti-communist revolutions in Eastern and South Eastern Europe overthrew the communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his regime. There are disputes among historians today about this revolution. It is called the “stolen revolution” or “unfinished revolution”, or “a coup d'état” or still an “exchange of leading personnel”. People were killed, citizens participated in the streets and there was systematic change caused by force. Nobody seriously disputes these facts nowadays.
After such a brutal era, it was unclear whether the Church would be able to retain its credibility in society. One can be surprised however, how closely the faithful were attached to their Church. The Romanian census of 1992 proved this: of over 22 million inhabitants, 90% were Romanian and of those, 87% were members of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
The Church had to change its relations with the state. The Church demanded “full autonomy” and “assurance of a statutory framework for the free development of its duties”. It also demanded “significant participation” in the drafting of the new constitution, which was at the time being prepared, as well as participation in formulating the laws regarding the Church. Religious education was reintroduced and was seen as an “achievement of the revolution”.
Religious education in public schools meant a special ecclesiastical proclamation in public for the ROC, in an area where for 50 years the Church had had no permission to fulfil its duties. The reintroduction of religious education as a subject in Romania’s public schools was not seen as a novelty, but as a return to what had been normal before 1948.
In the new democracy it was possible to restore some dioceses that had been destroyed by the communists after 1948 as well as to create some new dioceses, in the country or in diaspora. At the same time, new bishops were appointed, in Romania or abroad, in the years following the revolution, who had studied abroad or gathered rich experiences in the Romanian Church. In order to meet the actual needs of the Church, theological seminaries and university education were re-organised. The number of Orthodox theological schools increased from 6 to 38, while the number of theological faculties rose from 2 to 15.
It was also during that time that hermitages and monasteries, which had been closed by the communists, were reopened; new monasteries were founded and erected; hundreds of churches were built all over the country. One also has to take note of the ROC’s activities in some areas of social life, in which the Church had not been allowed to be active for 50 years: in hospitals, old people’s homes, orphanages, in the military, prisons, etc. At the same time the relations and theological dialogue between the ROC, the other Christian churches and other international ecumenical organisations continued. A reference to the Third Ecumenical Assembly of European Churches, which was held in Sibiu in September 2007, will suffice.
Tăvală, E. (2019). State and Church in Romania. In G. Robbers (Ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 513-518.
Fourteen different denominations were recognized by the Communist state, namely Roman Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, Unitarianism, Islam, Judaism, as well as different neo-Protestant denominations. Nowadays, the Law 489/2006 on freedom of religion and the general status of denominations, published in 2007, recognizes 18 denominations, i.e. the (1) Romanian Orthodox Church, (2) Serbian Orthodox Bishopric of Timişoara, (3) Roman-Catholic Church, (4) Romanian Church United with Rome (Greek-Catholic), (5) Archbishopric of the Armenian Church, (6) Russian Old-Rite Christian Church of Romania, (7) Reformed Church of Romania, (8) Evangelical Church of Romania, (9) Evangelical Lutheran Church of Romania, (10) Unitarian Church of Transylvania, (11) Union of Christian Baptist Churches of Romania, (12) Christian Church of the Gospel in Romania – Union of Christian Churches of the Gospel in Romania, (13) Romanian Evangelical Church, (14) Pentecostal Union – The Apostolic Church of God of Romania, (15) Adventist Seventh-Day Christian Church of Romania, (16) Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania, (17) Muslim Denomination and (18) Religious Organization Jehovah’s Witnesses.
With 18 recognized religions in Romania, any attempt to provide a definition of religious minority requires a degree of latitude and negotiation. Minority groups arise out of different historical circumstances and this is reflected in their respective interests and preferences. Generally speaking, minority groups demand, at the very least, recognition; support; funding; co-operation; inclusion; and ongoing institutionalized dialogue. A definition of religious minorities that allows them to successfully pursue their interests and aspirations would be optimal. On the one hand, it must be receptive to the needs of smaller, less organized minorities and, on the other, not too inclusive. It is necessary to strike a balance which leaves the door open for smaller and less organized minorities while safeguards should be put in place which allow for minorities to join the “club” at a future date providing they fulfill certain criteria laid down in the 2006 law.
Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill, accessed August 2021).
General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Romania in Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples https://minorityrights.org.
The text of the main legislative acts concerning freedom of religion or belief can be found at https://www.legislationline.org.
Information on the legal status of the main religious organizations is available (in Romanian) at http://culte.gov.ro.
A report on the Romanian legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in U.S. Department of State – Office of International Religious Freedom, 2020 Report on International Religious Freedom: Romania, available at https://www.state.gov.
An overview of the Romanian system of law and religion can be found in State Secretariat for Religious Affairs, State and Religions in Romania, Bucharest: State Secretariat for Religious Affairs, 2015, available at http://culte.gov.ro.
For an introduction to the State-religion legal system see Emanuel P. Tăvală, Romania, in G. Robbers, & C. W. Durham (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Law and Religion, Leiden: Brill, 2015 (the table of contents is available at https://referenceworks.brillonline.com.