A war story: Romania above all

[Medieval orthodox church Densus—Wikimedia: Grigore Roibu]

“ONE HAS TO BE SORRY for the poor Romanian people, whose very marrow is sucked out by the Jews. Not to react against the Jews means that we go open-eyed to our destruction. … To defend ourselves is a national and patriotic duty.” So spoke Patriarch Miron Cristea (1868–1939), the leader of the Romanian Orthodox Church between the world wars. What should have been a bright time for Romania, following the treaties of World War I, which were generous to the country, had devolved into political, economic, and cultural crises. Romanian leaders blamed these crises on the Jews.  

Romanians for Romania

During the interwar period, the Romanian Orthodox Church members made up 72 percent of Romania’s population; other significant Christian groups included Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Reformed, with Jews 5 percent of the total population. Romania was moving toward the kind of right-wing nationalism found elsewhere in Central Europe during the same period; by the mid-1930s, though most Romanian parties fought among themselves, they all agreed that the Romanian Orthodox was the church for the Romanian people and that Jews were bad. Romanian Orthodox Church leaders, neutral on paper, in practice agreed. 

The government gave special privileges in Romania’s parliament and constitution to Orthodox leaders. (Cristea in fact served as prime minister from 1938 to 1939.) During the war the Orthodox Church worked closely with wartime dictator Marshall Ion Victor Antonescu (1882–1946), though it did not participate with Romania’s military in the Holocaust on the Eastern Front. Antonescu brought Nichifor Crainic (1889–1972), a noted Orthodox theologian, into the government to work as his propaganda minister. When Romania began taking Jewish properties, Crainic wrote, “The State’s Leader has given satisfaction to Romania’s nationalist martyrs. … The ancestral heartland has become a property exclusively for the Romanian people.” The Orthodox Church began lobbying the government to ban Jews from converting to Christianity in the late 1930s; in March 1941 the government complied. 

Though the church accepted the existence of non-Orthodox Christians in churches that were not ethnically Romanian (such as German Lutherans and Hungarian Roman Catholics and Reformed), any non-Orthodox Christians of ethnic Romanian descent were labeled “sectarians” and called by the patriarch “a destructive element in our people’s bosom because they destroy our people’s unity . . . [and] not only undermine the Church’s authority but … [also] the foundation of the unified Romanian state.”

The church kept track of all those deemed to be a threat, and in early 1937 asked the government to take necessary measures against those “of foreign tongue and those not of Romanian ancestry, to stop them from any kind of propaganda activities … to save our good faithful people.” 

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That April the government issued a decision outlawing the International Bible Student Association, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Apostolic Church of God, Nazarenes, and some smaller charismatic and evangelical groups. The police were ordered to close those organizations’ meeting places and presses and confiscate their publications. No proselytizing was allowed, and anyone breaking this law was to be arrested. Other groups could operate as religious associations, but it was almost impossible to obtain a permit. 

Antonescu declared in 1940 that only seven official religions were allowed in the country besides Orthodox: Greco-Catholic, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Unitarian, Armeno-Gregorian, and Islam. Properties of now-illegal groups became the state’s, to be turned over to another legal Christian church.  

Please don’t close the orphanage

The Baptist Orphanage in Simeria was closed after a single hearing in February 1943 to be turned into an Orthodox mission to “reconvert these religious wanderers.” One petitioner, Rusu Ioan, pleaded to keep it open: “You would bring great joy to the minds of these sobbing orphans who do not want to hear that they are to lose their old home where they were cared for with tremendous Christian love.” What Ioan did not know was that the orphanage had been secretly under police surveillance, accused of harboring “false apostles” and spreading Baptist propaganda.

Hundreds of hearings in Romanian courts produced the same results. In the final three years of Antonescu’s regime, 338 Baptist properties, 18 Adventist properties, and 16 other churches were confiscated, with 17 given to the Orthodox Church and the rest kept by the government. Those caught meeting were arrested, and the postal service spied on suspected religious dissidents. When Antonescu was ousted by a coup in August 1944, the Orthodox Church reversed its rhetoric. But its leaders never offered an apology. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #121 Faith in the Foxholes. Read it in context here!

By William D. Pearce

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #121 in 2017]

William D. Pearce works for ETS Global and is the author of a dissertation on Romanian Orthodoxy in World War II.
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