A quarter century of religious policy

We may wonder how did PSD end up being such a pious party. From the “atheist” Iliescu who had barely come out of communism to orthodox calendars bearing the party’s logo – for putting up in kitchens, particularly in the countryside –, the road seems fairly long. Some are tempted to consider the association with the Orthodox Church as pragmatic electoral strategy meant to bring votes. The last presidential campaign was, after all, revealing: many clerics publicly expressed their preference for “faithful” Romanian Ponta, over the protestant and “foreign” Iohannis.

Lately, the mayor of Bucharest, one of the incumbent President’s potential future contenders, is missing no opportunity to prove her Orthodox piety. But the electoral explanation only sees one part of a wider picture. The true history of this alliance starts precisely in 1990. In the whirl of the great changes occurring back then, the new strongman in Bucharest, Ion Iliescu, appointed Victor Opaschi secretary of state for denominations.

Today, more than a quarter of century later, the same person is secretary of state for denominations, even though he held other offices too in the meantime. Such a continuity in “career,” one that started precisely during the 1980s, at the height of Ceausism, can only be puzzling. For a long time, Opaschi was one of the closest advisers of Ion Iliescu, the one who created the most successful Romanian party after the fall of communism. And he was, undeniably, the artisan of its religious policy. Its main directions were, after re-establishing the religious freedom curtailed by the previous regime, a skilful control of confessional competition – with a tacit but certain predilection for the majority Church, always interested in affirming its privileges – but also a strengthening of its dependence on the state by paying salaries to the clergy, financing the construction of religious establishments, preferential partnership for social assistance or supporting religious education. At first, during the time of former Patriarch Teoctist, a special strategic alliance had been established, one with a promising future, based on a convergent nationalist rhetoric, but subsequently it was partially overshadowed after our country joined the EU.

In short, the stake of the strategy practiced for almost three decades was a cooperation between the “mayor” and the “priest” on various levels – both quickly saw the advantages of such a relationship. What we are seeing today, consequently, is the fruit of a long-term religious policy. It’s obviously one of the strategic successes of the party launched by Ion Iliescu and it will probably continue for plenty of time.

But to Victor Opaschi (photo) we owe other initiatives too. For instance, the agreement on the future great mosque in Bucharest, now close to the start of construction works. Based on his own statements, he played a crucial role. The project has already sparked controversies, although the only politician of note that vehemently opposed it at one point was Traian Basescu, rather out of electoral opportunism. It’s fairly obvious that the project, before being religious is geopolitical.

Its financing is mostly covered by the Turkish Government and the negotiations started when the current Turkish President was Premier – so that its completion will also be his personal success. Just like in the case of the mosque in Rome, located in the exclusivist Parioli district, a mosque still considered the largest in Europe, the financier is an important Islamic state – the one in Italy’s capital is due to the Saudi royal family. The similarities go even further, because the project of the mosque in Bucharest entails a very large complex, with plenty of adjacent buildings, even though the plot of land will be three times smaller than that of the mosque in Rome. In order to assuage the possible opposition to the project, the principle of reciprocity was invoked, so that a Romanian church would be built in Istanbul. However, Victor Ponta pointed out when he was Premier that it would only be a hostel for pilgrims, possibly endowed with a chapel, considering that the construction of Christian churches is illegal in Turkey.

This means the project will look somewhat like the Romanian endowment in Jerusalem, which plays an important role in religious tourism – let’s not forget that in recent years this has become an important source of revenue for the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchy, which has ended up having a monopoly in this domain. They are probably thinking of profiting from such a new tourism opportunity too – an extremely prosperous business lies behind “pilgrimages.”

The more so since the liturgical needs of the community in Istanbul do not stringently require any other church. At this moment there is an accord, reached over a decade ago with the Ecumenical Patriarchy, on renting a small church built several centuries ago by a Wallachian prince. According to the statements made by the Romanian priest there, around 70 persons show up every Sunday – a small number, proof that overcrowding is out of the question. Moreover, those who consult the webpage of the Romanian Consulate in Istanbul find out that the great majority of the several thousand Romanians living in Turkey belong to the Turkish-Tatar minority of Romania, so they are not Orthodox.

Thus, the invoked principle of reciprocity is but a pretext for an agreement with preponderantly political stakes. So that the real issue to debate is not Islamophobia but the advisability of a geopolitical strategy.

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