Ignoring Decades of U.S. Congressional and Administration Appeals for “Equitable, Prompt, and Fair” Restitution Romania Re-Confiscates Hungarian Minority School, Persecutes Ethnic Hungarian Official on Fabricated Charges
In a scandalous disregard for the rule of law, as well as religious and minority rights, on November 26, a Romanian appellate court re-nationalized a Hungarian denominational high school in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe) built by the Hungarian Reformed Church in 1873 and confiscated in 1948 by the communist regime. Concurrently, the same Ploiesti Court of Appeals upheld three-year, suspended prison sentences for Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim for their 2002 lawful decision, in their official capacity as members of the Special Committee on Church Property Restitution, to restore this property to the aforementioned rightful owner.
In this last of 25 postponements and show trials begun in 2010, the Romanian court has now imposed the final ruling that the Hungarian Reformed Church — which undisputedly established the school in 1859 — has no legal right to its property, never owned the property, and must hand the building complex — for which it incidentally spent $700,000 on restoration — over to “the people,” i.e., the state. The ruling only suspends the three officials’ prison sentences for their alleged offenses, which remain on their criminal records. At the same time, under the ruling, the state will magnanimously “forgive” the Church a fine of $322,000 for“illegally using the building during the last 12 years since restitution.”
The state actions, occurring on the heels of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania resignation from the governing coalition lead by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, have provoked wide-spread protest and universal condemnation by all segments of Romania’s 1.4 million strong Hungarian community. Exhausting all appeals, there is no remaining domestic legal recourse, only international pressure, for the Church and the three individual victims. Bishop Béla Kató of the Hungarian Reformed Church told HHRF that, as “Romania is not governed by the rule of law,” he is ready to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights, although the outcome is highly dubious.
Four Years of Harassment and Persecution
The latest chapter in the 66 years of miscarriage of justice this school has suffered began on De-cember 22, 2010, when Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim were charged by the Romanian Anti-Corruption Prosecutor with “official abuse of power”and “damaging the interests of the Romanian State” for their 2002 decision to restore the property to its rightful owner. Consequently, the Hungarian Reformed Church faced losing the school and was also fined 1.1 million lei in damages.
In deciding to prosecute, and during the subsequent trials, the state deliberately ignored documentary evidence submitted by the defendants and the Church that irrefutably substantiated the rightful owner’s claim of original ownership and should have cleared the Special Committee members of any wrongdoing. The legitimate question arises: Why?
The True Crime: In 25 Years, Less than 1/3 of Church Properties Have Been Restored
By processing, let alone actually returning use of, a mere one-third (2,400 of 7,568) of all religious property claims in the past 25 years, it is the Romanian government that has committed gross negligence and exhibited systemic contempt for private property, the freedom of religion, civil society and, in particular, minority communities. The cost for the entire country has been incalculable as successive Romanian governments have impeded the country’s full democratization by delaying and obstructing the restitution process with impunity, all so that the state could retain these properties as long as possible.
The failure to nominally return to the four historic Hungarian churches (Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed, Lutheran and Unitarian) only 1,204 of their 2,140 schools, hospitals, orphanages and other humanitarian institutions confiscated between 1945 and 1989 has directly and irrevocably damaged the 1.4 million-strong minority, the country’s largest. For an entire generation , these Churches have been unable to fully carry out their charitable missions, serve their communities, and provide the traditional pillars of civic society they maintained for centuries.
To deflect attention away from this ongoing travesty of justice, the Romanian state has not refrained from turning the victim into the violator: burdening the innocent with criminal records because they faithfully carried out the law, and branding the Hungarian Reformed Church a liar and thief for submitting “false restitution claims.”
Will the Romanian Authorities File Suit against Each Restitution Decision?
Bishop Béla Kató’s prophetic words back in December 2010 that“the lawsuit may give birth to a dangerous legal precedent, leading to other instances of re-nationalization of already restituted church properties,” is poised to become a reality. A legal precedent has been set by the November 26 ruling which was predicated on the State Prosecutor’s false allegation that the Székely Mikó High School was somehow a separate legal entity because in the 1870s the local Protestant congregation made small donations to its construction, with the significant costs of construction born by Tran-sylvania’s Governor at the time, the Hungarian Imre Mikó. The institution was given legal title under the protectorate of the Hungarian Reformed Church, a centuries-old tradition even at the time. Since the same legal procedures were followed in other localities to establish schools, the state will presumably not stop at attacking only one restitution decision but will seek to renationalize other buildings it has already restored to all the denominations.
This is provided that the restitution process limps forward at all. From 2010 until July 2013, the Special Committee – composed of five newer members – failed to even convene to process claims. Since then, it meets about quarterly, provided a quorum of four is present. As dismal a record as this is, now, with the unjustified criminal sentencing of former members, can they be expected to make any decisions at all without fear of retribution?
Ignoring Decades of U.S. Congressional and Administration Appeals for “Equitable, Prompt, and Fair” Restitution
On May 22, 2014, eight Members of Congress sent a follow-up letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking that the State Department continue to “carefully follow developments in the cases regarding ownership of the Székely Mikó Reformed School and the legal proceedings against Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim.” In a prior, June 13, 2013 bipartisan letter, 21 Members had requested that, among others, Mr. Kerry “vigorously engage the Romanian government to end the travesty of justice it has perpetuated by fully restituting properties illegally confiscated,” “protest the latest church property restitution law”which was a regression even compared to the flawed 2002 one, and to carefully follow the case of the Székely Mikó High School.
The State Department’s response of July 9, 2013 underscored that property restitution in Romania is a “key priority” for the Administration which it has “long raised with Romania.” U.S. Embassy officials had also met with Attila Markó and attended his June 27, 2013 Romanian Supreme Court hearing as official observers. “We will continue to advocate for a sound judicial decision based on the rule of law,” affirmed the letter.
Though the State Department stated that “Romanian authorities have assured us they are open to our suggestions and those of various stakeholders for amending and improving restitution legislation,” curiously, the Romanian government not only failed to amend or eliminate the retrograde law No. 165 it had adopted on April 17, 2013, but also continued its prosecution of the Hungarian Reformed Church and the three Special Committee members, hiding behind the alleged independence of the judiciary.
Already in 2005 , under the co-sponsorship of Congressmen Tom Lantos and Tom Tancredo the U.S. Congress had sent a strong message to Romania when it unanimously adopted H.Res 191 on the need to accelerate restitution and remedy the gross injustice suffered by the Jewish community, the four historic Hungarian churches, and the Greek Catholic Church. The resolution—wholly ignored to this day—set forth seven specific actions the Romanian authorities needed to urgently take.
Since all legal recourse has been exhausted in Romania for the Hungarian Reformed Church and the three defendants, their only hope for fair decision rests in the European Court of Human Rights. However, due to the Strasbourg tribunal’s crowded agenda, it might take years until the case is even heard, and justice (further) delayed is justice (continually) denied.
The Romanian authorities are responsible for this injustice. HHRF calls on them to immediately restore legal title of the Székely Mikó High School to the Hungarian Reformed Church by government ordinance and exonerate Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán, and Silviu Clim of all charges. The authorities must further ensure that legal decisions heretofore restoring title and use of properties rightfully belonging to the four historic Hungarian churches are not reversed. The Romanian government must remove all obstacles to fully restoring title to and use of the remaining 5,168 properties, including amending laws as necessary, in consultation with the stakeholders.