Secularism in Romania: When the freedom of speech is undermined through social pressure

  • post Type / Young Humanists International
  • Date / 3 June 2016

Jarcatimea Timi, IHEYO newsletter April/May, 2016

Following the fall of communism in 1989, religious freedom was, among their newfound freedoms, something Romanians were eager to pursue. With a history heavily influenced by the Orthodox Church, Romania found herself in the last 27 years in a constant search for cultural identity. While being a European country which supposedly champions humanistic values, freedom of expression and the separation of church and state, today those values are being jeopardized by a chronic social pressure. Even if we are to withhold applying a drastic label of religious fundamentalism, the limits on free speech and the unquestionable influence that The Romanian Orthodox Church has in matters pertaining to state governing is at the very least worrisome.

​The first five months of 2016 have already produced two media scandals regarding the role and the privileged position held by the Church. Being an election year, the situation is amplified by the desire of politicians to secure their necessary votes. Our story however begins in 2011, when The Romanian Orthodox Church announced the construction of a cathedral in downtown Bucharest. Stretching eleven hectares, it was assumed to be propped up by the Church’s personal funds. However, since over 80% of Romanians declare themselves Orthodox, it is very difficult, in practice, to determine which money comes from the state and which from the Church’s coffers.

Moreover, although the Romanian Constitution does not recognize any religion as being the state religion, the law obliges the state to support and defend the various religious organizations. After Bucharest’s City Hall decision in 2014 of granting twelve million Euros towards building the cathedral, a bill was proposed in 2015 calling for the suspension of financial aid received from the state. The project did not result in any change and the Orthodox Church continued to receive the aforementioned support. Nevertheless, the status quo started to shake along with the emancipation of young Romanians who began to demand the separation of Church and state, therefore calling for change in regards to the continued privileged position held by the Orthodox Church. The last two years have brought about extraneous pressures on the church, such as calls for the removal of Religion Class from the school curriculum or calls for fair taxation on Church produced goods and commerce (income which is still in no way taxed today, all church associate producers being exempt from taxes). In this newly formed environment, a recent dispute sprung up questioning the church’s status, early April, 2016.“Taxi” is a pop-rock band with folk influences started in 1999, known and beloved for the critical messages they convey through their songs. From making quips about life in a couple, to the discontent regarding Romanian dubbed foreign TV programs, to the everlasting problem of stray dogs, throughout the years, Taxi have voiced in their lyrics the anxieties present in the Romanian psyche. Their messages never targeted anyone, were never meant to defame anyone and were consistently expressed with a healthy dose of common sense and diplomacy, attempting rather to raise awareness for everyday problems. Also, the tone they used in all of their songs has always been a friendly and funny one. In this exact style they released their song “About Humility”. The lyrics are finely ironic to the opulent and extravagant cathedral being built in the Romanian capital. The artists urge towards humility and frugality, virtues which are being preached nevertheless by the Orthodox dogma. It is mentioned explicitly that the song is not meant to be one about good and evil, right or wrong or in no way a debate about secular and religious values. Rather, it is simply an opinion piece which states that God would probably prefer “wood” and “small spaces”.

Perhaps the video would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for the guest appearances of over thirty Romanian public figures, each one echoing the song’s chorus: “God prefers wood and small spaces”. Artists, writers, journalists, actors and various Romanian intellectuals have subscribed to this message indicated by their mere presence in the video. And thus the fire rose. Television and newspapers harbored critics more or less hostile to the band and to the people that associated with its song. Charges of theft and corruption were being thrown about on both sides and for two weeks the people involved were being subject to various attacks. Grigore Lese, one of the most famous Romanian musicologists, started denying the message he himself took part in, leading to the withdrawal of the song from the online space along with its corresponding video. While thankfully this unfortunate series of events has not culminated in any physical harm to anyone involved, one may recall “Charlie Hebdo” as an example of how easily free speech bends under religious dogmatism. From statements made by the band’s front man, it becomes clear that the band will not give up on its humanist values. A new clip will be released in which every person previously involved is free to reconsider their stance on this issue and whether or not they want to adhere to this movement, considering Romania’s social pressure. Regardless if we choose to interpret this dispute as a conflict between the positive or negative forces and their impact on tolerance and free speech, it is certain that this is not the only incident of this kind to happen this spring.

As hinted at before, it is difficult to point out where politics ends and religion begins or vice versa, regarding both the financial aspect and in whom the residing influence and power lies. In a country where the church has a significant role in education it is easily identifiable why the power of clergymen is directly proportional to the position they occupy in the Orthodox Church. This does not necessarily constitute a problem, barring the fact that these public funds are collected from taxpayers regardless of their religious affiliation. As such, highly regarded clergymen are public figures and it follows that some aspects of their lives are discussed in the media. During the last week of April, people across the country were preparing for Easter, an important moment in their everyday lives. In this same week a journalist published a news article with photos of the new car driven by Transylvania’s Metropolitan, the person with the highest rank in Transylvania’s priesthood. The journalist alluded, much like the lyrics of the aforementioned band, to the opulence of the patriarchs whose expenditures were easily afforded thanks to public funds. The conditions were once again ripe for a new media scandal. His Eminence reacted by condemning the article which had himself as its focal point. The newspaper which hosted the article published an official apology and the journalist that dared to criticize the High Priest’s choices was sanctioned for his transgression. Given the fact that publications which have virtually no religious agenda come to censor criticisms leveled toward high ranking clergymen, two questions arise: “How can we guarantee the freedom of the press?” and “How can we ensure that the Romanian people have the right means of information?”. The hope that the secular and humanist associations will continue the work they have been engaged in in recent years. By steering towards European values, the hope is that more people will make a clear-cut distinction between religion and politics as with matters of faith and democracy.

There is a less publicized dimension to this conflict and –in the view of some– potentially much worse: the Church’s interference in Romania’s academia. In the 14th of April, Politehnica University of Bucharest awarded Patriarch Daniel the title of Doctor Honoris Causa, the highest ranking person in the hierarchy of the Church. The title was received even though the priest has no academic background in engineering or any technical field whatsoever, with some members of the university senate and the majority of the student body opposing the ceremony. To avoid possible appeals and protests, it was held as a small event held outside of campus, a clandestine ceremony so to speak. While Romanians are interested about money and politics, they are less concerned with academia. Thus the event passed on in silence and no further comments were made.

From the point of view of a young humanist living in Romania, it’s hard to say whether the situation as it presents itself is good or bad. This is because on one hand we still have a long journey ahead of us but on the other hand progress has been made nonetheless. Even though Religion class is no longer mandatory by law, in practice, it is still being taught in all schools around the country. Creationism is not officially taught in schools, but neither is evolutionism, the choice being left to the teaching staff. Furthermore, the senior citizens and that part that is still primarily rural, which comprises a decent chunk of the demographic, is still very strongly influenced by the Sunday service, making the Church a deciding factor in regional and national election. In other words, the theory is decently good in Romania but the practical application is lacking throughout. Agnostics and atheists, but especially the latter, are still regarded with fear and contempt. Questioning religion and God’s existence is still a taboo but up until recently, there were no conflicts precisely because there were no voices willing to rise up against the religious establishment. Ending on an optimistic note, even though these conflicts are being suppressed by the Orthodox Church, their mere existence marks a great deal of progress in the promotion of humanist values.

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