Church Property Restitution – the Dark Shadow Obscuring the “Bright Future” of U.S.-Romanian Bilateral Relations

December 10, 2017

On June 9, 2017, at their joint White House press conference, President Trump applauded Romanian President Klaus Iohannis for his “courageous efforts in Romania to fight corruption and defend the rule of law,” speaking of the “bright future” between the two nations. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for Romania’s 1.5 million ethnic Hungarian minority and the country’s Greek Catholic and Jewish religious minorities who, since the fall of communism, continue to be denied full religious, minority and property rights.

  •     Clearly, the Romanian President was not called to account for the scandalous 27-year failure of each successive government to restore more than but a fraction of the 13,379 church properties illegally confiscated by the State from their rightful owners between 1945 and 1989.
  •     Apparently, President Trump was not appraised that the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 instructed the Department of State to report, within 90 days of enactment, on steps taken by the Government of Romania and the State Department to restore confiscated church properties to their legal owners, and that the ensuing report contained false information propagated by the Romanian authorities.[1]
  •     Nor did President Iohannis have to explain the definition of rule of law in which a corrupt judiciary can collude with the state anti-corruption prosecutor (DNA) in persecuting civil servants for carrying out their official duties, re-nationalize a Protestant high school already legally restored to its rightful owner, and take orders from the government not to adjudicate the 17-year running Batthyaneum Library case.[2]

The harsh reality is that the State Department is aware of the gravity of the situation but at the same time out of solutions to resolve the increasingly multi-faceted and entrenched human rights violations suffered by these religious denominations. As the socially divisive centennial of Romania’s national holiday (the 1918 declaration by Romanians to unify Transylvania with Romania) approaches, anti-Hungarian sentiment is already on the rise. [3] Thus renewed efforts are  needed to  achieve justice for these beleaguered religious minorities, with particular focus on the violations summarized below.

The Numbers That Speak for Themselves

  • 13,379 is the total number of properties illegally confiscated from religious denominations by the Romanian communist regime in the 1945-1989 period.
  • 2,140 of these buildings [housing schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social institutions] were taken from the four historic Hungarian churches – Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed (Protestant), Lutheran and Unitarian.
  • 27 years after the 1989 Romanian Revolution and the overthrow of communism, 60.3 percent of these [just Hungarian] properties are still usurped by the Romanian state.

The International Religious Freedom Report for 2016 released on August 15, 2017 by the U.S. State Department confirms a complete shutdown of any forward movement to return properties to their rightful owners: “The government rejected more than 1,000 restitution claims for previously confiscated religious properties and approved 28.”

Our first-hand sources in Romania confirm that this preposterous situation remains unchanged in 2017.

How is this possible?

While the Special Restitution Committee should be accelerating the pace at which it approves claims, it has placed additional roadblocks in the process for the past three years.

In May 2016, when preparing the report mandated by the aforementioned Omnibus Act, the Romanian authorities insisted to the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest that Parliament had adopted a law [4] that eliminated all impediments to returning all the outstanding properties not yet restored to the four Hungarian historic churches. Specifically, the authorities asserted that, as a result of the new law, the Special Restitution Committee would stop rejecting hundreds of claims filed by the Churches where title was jointly shared with auxiliary church institutions.

In fact, the new law did nothing of the sort and had nothing whatsoever to do with the problems faced by religious denominations. During a June 2016 visit to Washington D.C., Bishop Béla Kató of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and subsequently the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (representing the Hungarian minority politically), as well as HHRF staff on the ground, all confirmed that information received and reported by the State Department from official Romanian sources was false.

So what does this new law (No. 103/2016) actually do?

  1. Paves the way for those claimants who were forced to “donate” their properties during World War II and the communist era to now file claims.
  2. Establishes continuity of ownership of communal property by recognizing certain present-day inheritors of same as legitimate.
  3. Accords priority to private claims by Holocaust survivors. 

  None of these provisions remove the roadblocks used to deny the four historic Hungarian Churches’ rightful claims:

1.    The first point is moot since the vast majority of the 2,140 church properties were officially confiscated from the Hungarian churches by the communist regime in 1948. The state “well-documented” the nationalization of these properties, the fact of which has never been contested by either side; and the Churches already submitted proof of original ownership 17 years ago when they filed the claims following the issuance of Government Emergency Ordinance 94/2000.

2.   The second point is irrelevant. Church properties are not considered communal properties. The Romanian Parliament passed different laws for the restitution of Church properties and other)properties confiscated from national minority organizations, referred to as communal properties. The provision in the new law amends Government Emergency Ordinance 83/1999, which establishedcontinuity in ownership solely in the case of communal properties.

3.   The third point is also irrelevant. The four historic Hungarian Churches have not filed any individual claims and its members are Roman Catholic, Hungarian Reformed (Protestant), Unitarian and Lutheran worshipers who cannot be considered Holocaust survivors.

Most importantly, what is missing entirely from the new law is a provision to unequivocally stipulate that properties confiscated by the former communist regime must be returned to the legal successors.

Based on these facts, the only logical conclusion is that the Romanian authorities were deliberate in their attempt to mislead U.S. officials. Meantime, the Special Restitution Committee continues to rejects claims by the Hungarian churches under the pretext that the claimant and the original owner are not the same legal entity or its true successor.

The Romanian State persecutes those civil servants on the Special Restitution Committee who faithfully carry out their duties, according to law

Ethnic Hungarian former Member of Parliament, high-ranking Romanian government official, and member of the Special Restitution Committee Attila Markó’s tribulation began in 2010 when he was falsely charged with “official abuse of power” for deciding to return the Székely Mikó Protestant High School in Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe to its rightful owner, the Hungarian Reformed Church [5]. The building had been confiscated from the church in 1948 and the decision to return it was straight-forward. Nevertheless, Romanian prosecutors fabricated an indictment and in June 2012 the court sentenced three members of the restitution committee involved in the decision — Attila Markó, Tamás Marosán and Silviu Clim — to three years of imprisonment. The witch-hunt did not stop there: later on Mr. Markó was forced to resign from the Romanian Parliament, his reputation ruined and even further besmirched by false allegations of impropriety in other property-related cases where he wasn’t even involved.

Why does the Romanian Anti-Corruption Agency (DNA) want by any and all means to destroy Mr. Markó’s reputation and put him behind bars?

The answer is unsettling: he had to be eliminated, because he fulfilled his duties on the Special Restitution Committee too efficiently; too many properties were returned to the historic Hungarian Churches during his tenure.

This assertion is underpinned by official statistics from the Special Restitution Committee: In the five years since the above-mentioned three civil servants were sentenced in 2012, the Committee has rejected 86.8 percent of all claims submitted by religious denominations (including Greek Catholic and Jewish):

Total number of claims:


Rejected by Committee     


Compensation Provided    


Restitution Granted


Withdrawn by Claimants



The reason behind the large percentage of negative decisions is self-evident: Fear. Current members of the Special Restitution Committee do not want to risk unjust prosecution and possible imprisonment for doing their job (well) as did Markó, Marosán and Clim (in fact for years the government could not fill the seven positions on the Committee). Rather, they deny the overwhelming majority of claims submitted by the four historic Hungarian Churches for the return of their schools, kindergartens, orphanages, and so on.

The undeniable reality is that the Romanian authorities are taking advantage of a legitimate and warranted anti-corruption struggle and achieving their obvious goal: to return as few properties as possible to the four historic Hungarians Churches, Greek Catholic and Jewish denominations.

The Romanian State simply re-nationalizes high-profile and value religious properties to assert their power over minorities and set legal precedents

In June 2016, the Special Restitution Committee’s decision de facto renationalized the Hungarian Protestant High School in the town of Sfântu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy for the third time in the past 68 years. The travesty of justice inflicted on the Hungarian Reformed Church in their attempt to regain ownership of the Székely Mikó High School has also set dangerous legal precedent in the country:

First nationalized 1948. The Special Restitution Committee restored the property in 2000 to the Church. Second time nationalized 2012. Twelve years later, the State begins criminal proceedings; the courts take the school way from the Church and sentence the 3 members of the Special Restitution Committee for the original 2000 decision. In 2014, the appellate court upholds the decision of the lower court. Third time nationalized 2016. The Church again submits a claim to the Special Restitution Committee in April 2016, which denies it in June.

As the central government and the courts switch off roles in an ongoing cat and mouse game, the Churches are at their whim and have no more recourse.

Overt judicial interference by the Romanian government to keep properties for the State deemed too valuable (monetarily or prestige) to relinquish

Since 1998, the Romanian authorities have done everything in their power not to give back the world-famous Battyaneum Library and Astronomical Observatory to the Roman Catholic Church. True, the institution is of inestimable cultural, historic and bibliophile value (the Codex Aureus it houses is alone reportedly worth 10 Billion USD), but its rightful owner is the Archdiocese of Alba Iulia/Gyulafehérvár. [6]

Even though the European Court of Human Rights fined and ordered the Romanian State to hand over the property,  and the Church has been forced to file numerous lawsuits and appeals to the Special Restitution Committee, there is still no justice for the Roman Catholic Church. In April 2016, at the request of the Romanian government, the Alba Iulia Court of Appeals indefinitely postponed ruling in the case.

Similar to other high-profile, valuable properties rightfully belonging to the Hungarian historic Churches, the authorities (whether the government and its affiliated agencies, or the judiciary) continue to delay, deny and simply cherry-pick those aspects of the law and the restitution process that serve its interests thereby preventing return of the Batthyaneum to the rightful owner. [7]

Major Legal Milestones in the Roman Catholic Church’s Efforts
to Regain the Batthyaneum Library

1998.  Emergency Government Ordinance (EGO) No. 3/1998 orders that the Batthyaneum Library and Astronomical Observatory be returned to the Roman Catholic Church.

Restitution never happens. On September 29, 1998, the local branch of the then ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) brings a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, the Romanian Academy and the Government of Romania.

2002. After a legal dispute lasting five and a half years, on March 7, 2002, the court recognizes the Archdiocese's right of ownership over the library and the observatory. In response, the Romanian authorities refuse for the second time to hand over the property.

2012. Ten years later, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg decides on the Church’s appeal.  On September 25, 2012, the Court rules in favor of the plaintiff, stating that Romania has violated Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights by delaying the restitution of the building for 14 years. Furthermore, it rules that the Romanian State pay 25,000 euros compensation for non-material damage.

2015. The government pays the fine but does not return the property. The Archdiocese repeatedly petitions the Special Restitution Committee to abide by the ECHR decision and approve legal title and possession of the Batthyaneum Library. Three years later, the Committee rejects the Archdiocese’s request (in a vote of 6 nays, 1 abstention) on September 16, 2015.

On November 12, 2015, the Archdiocese yet again files a lawsuit against the Special Restitution Committee’s decision.

2016. At the request of the Romanian Government, on April 26, 2016, the Alba Iulia Court of Appeals announces an indefinite postponement of the case.



Demonstrably, the assault against the Hungarian minority, its religious institutions and other minority religious denominations is being orchestrated at the highest levels of the Romanian government, and that is where it has to be stopped.

As the major force behind pressing the Romanian government to adopt anti-corruption measures,  the United States has the credibility to tell the Romanian government it has over-reached and its actions must be reversed to serve the intended original purposes.

        Hungarian Human Rights Foundation (HHRF)
Monitoring the human rights conditions of 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians living as minorities
 in Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine since 1976

United States: 120 East 90th Street, Suite 5D, New York, NY 10128; tel: 1-212-289-5488; fax: 1-212-996-6268; e-mail: info[at]hhrf[dot]org
Magyarország: 1255 Budapest, pf. 66.; tel: +36-1-795-5940, 5941; fax: +36-1-795-0458; e-mail: zsigmond[at]hhrf[dot]org
Romania: str. Moţilor 9., 400001 Cluj; tel: +40-735-445003; e-mail: mazs[at]hhrf[dot]org


[1] The language in the Act – put forth by Representatives Harris (R-MD) and Kaptur (D-OH) and initially adopted in June 2015 by the House Appropriations Committee – was the most recent Congressional effort to secure justice for ethnic and religious minorities since the passage of H.R. 191 in 2005  more than two decades ago. Prior, recent initiatives include correspondence between Members and Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and 2014 wherein the State Department underscored that Romanian property restitution is a “key priority” for the Administration.

[2] As also reported in the Department of State International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, released on August 15, 2017

                [3]  Since August 2017, a campaign to rescind Hunor Kelemen’s Romanian citizenship – the president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) – is underway. At an August 22 Bucharest soccer game, fans shouted “Hungarians out of the country,” again.

                [4] Law 103/2016 went into effect on May 26, 2016 and was based on Government Emergency Ordinance 21/2015, which amended Law 165/2013, and it also amended Article 3 of Government Emergency Ordinance 94/2000.

                [5]  HHRF has issued several HHRF Alerts on this subject, latest on December 4, 2014

                [6]  The library and observatory were founded in 1798 by the ethnic Hungarian Roman Catholic Bishop Ignác Batthyányi. In 1949, the foundation set up by Ignác Batthyányi to run the Library was liquidated; its assets were nationalized by the Romanian state. It is well-known fact in Romania that the historic Hungarian Churches gave large-scale autonomy to their affiliated institutions.

                [7] In this case, the Special Restitution Committee argued that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Alba Iulia is not identical with the Roman Catholic Institute of Astronomy (Csillagda) noted in the land registry, while the Romanian Court already ruled that it is the legitimate successor to the latter.