Every month 100 new churches
Trouw, 2 January 2014

Driving from Bucharest into the Romanian hinterland you pass through villages where only once a day a bus stops, and where a solitary mule is the only sign of life. Where the school closed years ago, and where cracks show in the walls of the municipal building. Where after sunset the houses remain as dark as the unpaved streets they line. And where the golden domes of immense, newly delivered parish churches sparkle in the pale moonlight.

The exact numbers are unknown, closely guarded as a state secret, but church-building is a booming business in Romania. According to some estimates, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the biggest denomination in the country, consecrates a hundred new churches and chapels every month, most of them in small provincial towns and villages like the one described above.

Measured by the number of people who consider themselves religious, Romania is one of the most devout countries in Europe. In a 2012 census, less than 0.5 percent of Romanians identified as non-believers, out of a population of well over 20 million people. 87 percent said to belong to the Romanian Orthodox Church, a 6 percent point rise since the previous census.

However, among Orthodox Christians church visits are low. More than half cross the church threshold only for weddings and feasts, while only 2 percent goes to church on a weekly basis. Many Romanians therefore question the building activities of the Orthodox Church, especially as the financial costs seem to be carried by society.

70 million for the 'cults'

The Romanian Orthodox Church is exempted from taxes and receives financial support from the state, just like seventeen other denominations that are officially recognised, the so-called 'cults'. The State Secretariat for Religious Affairs provides the cults with some 70 million Euro a year. The money is being distributed according to the number of devotees. As a result, the Orthodox Church receives over 90 percent of the funds.

According to Liviu Andreescu, a political scientist at the University of Bucharest, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Andreescu does research on the relations between church, state and society. "You have to look at the government funding as an estuary, in which those 70 million Euro are merely the biggest stream. But there are many, many smaller rivers all flowing into the same direction: into the direction of the Orthodox Church."

Patriarch Daniel, for example, receives 120,000 Euro a month to support his administration. Money from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) also ended up with the Orthodox Church. The national auditor's office recently established that in 2008, the church received over 20 million Euro from the DREF, a fund that according to the auditors is being widely misused. On top of that come donations by state enterprises and financial and material contributions from regional and local governments.

This Spring, the Orthodox Church unexpectedly gave insight into the money streams. In a press release it stated that it receives 0.4 percent GDP every year. This would amount to over 500 million Euro. Most press releases by the Church go unnoticed, but this one caused so strong an outcry that the Church hurried to correct itself: the press release ought to have said '0.4 percent of the state budget' which, although substantially less, still adds up to 250 million Euro. If indeed it was a mistake, it was one the Church has made before, as in several other publications the same number is mentioned.

"I don?t think they manage to come to 0.4 percent GDP", said Mr. Andreescu. "But no matter what, we still talk about a very substantial sum of money. And the Church doesn?t use this money for social activities, but to strengthen it's own position and even to attack other cults.'

The Romanian government currently prepares to revise the Constitution. The Orthodox Church is putting pressure on the government to add an article that states that the Orthodox faith is defining for the Romanian identity, and that the Orthodox Church therefore holds a special place in society.

"According to the Orthodox Church, the separation of church and state is something of the West", said Atila Nyerges, chairman of the Romanian Secular-Humanist Association, ASUR. "In Romania, we wouldn't need that separation, because we are supposed to be a more mystical people. The Church tries to impose those ideas on society, through politicians and through religious education in schools."

Public schools are obliged to offer classes in religious education. In most public schools such classes are given by teachers trained at Orthodox seminaries. As a result, the classes pay attention only to the Orthodox faith. But although schools are expected to provide the classes, attendance is not obligatory. Only most parents do not know this.

"Children are being taught like in church", said Mr. Nyerges. "Do you know what the friendliest thing is they say about other religions? That they are misleading! This is literally what it says in schoolbooks that are approved by the Ministry of Education."

Indoctrination in schools

According to Remus Cernea this is 'pure indoctrination'. As a Member of Parliament on behalf of the Green Party he works on a draft law to change religious education. "Education should be non-confessional and should not promote segregation. In religion classes you should learn about different faiths and the educational system should be directed at encouraging a dialogue. If you want to learn how to pray, you can go to Sunday School."

His working chamber in the Palace of the Parliament, in the center of Bucharest, overlooks the enormous construction site where the 'Cathedral for the Salvation of the People' arises, that is due to be inaugurated in 2015. The new cathedral will offer room for 5,000 believers and will be the biggest Orthodox church in the world. The land on which the church is being erected, and that holds a market value of 10 million Euro, was donated by the Romanian state. The construction costs, estimated at 200 million Euro, are partly carried by the city of Bucharest and surrounding municipalities. With a height of 127 meters the cathedral will be slightly higher than the in itself gargantuan Palace of Parliament. "How symbolic, wouldn't you say?" Mr Cernea asked, while looking out the window.

Religion in Romania

The Romanian law distinguishes between religious groups, religious associations and religions. Religious groups are not registered and do not receive state funding. Groups that have the status of a legal entity can register as a religious association, after which they qualify for a partial tax exemption. The religions, commonly called the cults, form the most preferential tier. They enjoy full tax exemption, receive state funding, can establish schools and have the right to offer religious education classes in those public schools in which their adherents form a majority.

Currently there are 18 recognised cults. The biggest by far is the Romanian Orthodox Church. Among the others are the Serbian Orthodox Church, The Armenian Church, the Greek Catholic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Reformed (Protestant) Church. The only non-Christian cults are Judaism and Islam. Among the cults, the Jehovah?s Witnesses hold a special position, as they refuse all state funding.