Romanian city offers model of plural co-existence for Europe's future

By Stephen Brown
11 Sep 2007

Down a cobbled street in the Romanian city of Sibiu, a Lutheran church that contains a valuable pre-Reformation altar stands a few hundred metres from the city's Orthodox Cathedral. The cathedral, built at the beginning of the 20th century, is in the style of the renowned Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) built in what is present-day Istanbul.

A little further along the street is a Hungarian-speaking Reformed church. Not far away is the city's biggest Roman Catholic church, topped by an onion dome and built in baroque fashion at the beginning of the 18th century, when Sibiu was part of the Habsburg empire.

Another couple of hundred metres further on lies the Lutheran 'Stadtpfarrkirche', which towers above the centre of the city, and was completed in 1520, thirty years before the city's then-majority German population adopted the Reformation of Martin Luther.

"There has been a coexistence of different religious traditions here for centuries," Lutheran Bishop Christoph Klein, whose headquarters are in Sibiu, told Ecumenical News International.

Klein is the author of a new book, "Kirchen der Stadt - Stadt der Kirchen" ("Churches of the city - City of churches"), launched on the eve of the Third European Ecumenical Assembly. The assembly, which runs from 4-9 September, has brought about 2500 people from all of European's main Christian traditions to Sibiu.

Most of Romania's 22 million people belong to the Orthodox church, but the many different church buildings in Sibiu testify to the shifting political allegiances of the region of Transylvania, where the city is located.

The name of the city also testifies to this mix of different peoples and cultures. Sibiu is the Romanian name for the city. In German it is known as Hermannstadt, and for Hungarians it is Nagyszeben.

Bishop Klein himself traces his roots back to German settlers brought to the region in the middle of the 12th century by Hungarian King Geisa II, who wanted to tap their skill in battle to ward off marauding Mongols, Turks and Tartars.

The descendants of the settlers now account for only about 2000 of Sibiu's 150 000 people, but at the time of the Reformation they were in the majority, and in 1550 Hermannstadt, then part of the Kingdom of Hungary, became a Lutheran stronghold.

Twenty-one years later, in 1571, Transylvania became an autonomous principality under Ottoman rule. At the beginning of the 18th century the Habsburg empire took over, and after the First World War, Hungary ceded the region to Romania.

As Klein notes in his new book, the present-day religious, linguistic and ethnic make up of the city reflects these successive changes of sovereignty.

"The Orthodox and the Greek Catholics (united with Rome) pray in Romanian, the Lutherans in German, and the Reformed and Unitarians in Hungarian," he writes. "The Roman Catholic Church has services in all three languages. Sermons in the Free Churches are in Romanian and occasionally still in German. And recently Roma people have begun services in their own language."

The Habsburgs promoted the Roman Catholic Church and tried to persuade Romanian Orthodox clergymen in Transylvania to join the Greek (Byzantine Rite) Catholic Church in union with Rome.

And after the Habsburg's Edict of Tolerance of 1781, the first Hungarian Reformed church, whose members were principally Hungarians, was built within Sibiu's city walls.

The edict also allowed Orthodox Romanians to build places of worship, and by the end of the 18th century a small Orthodox church stood on the site of the present-day cathedral.

"The word 'plurality' has now become a slogan, but here, though called by different names, it has been an everyday reality taken for granted for centuries, supported by tolerance. Though encumbered by tensions, these have seldom led to enmity and never to military conflict," writes Klein.

For many years, however, the city's religious communities, though coexisting peacefully, remained largely separate from each other. Recently, that has begun to change, writes Klein. Although interdenominational dialogue was not always easy during the period of communist rule after the Second World War, it has borne fruit that can be seen today. He says, "The various churches, while maintaining their own confessional, ethnic and linguistic identities, accept the others and in this way are able to open up for dialogue and for taking steps together to promote Christian unity."

In 2007, Sibiu has been proclaimed a European Capital of Culture, and Klein believes the city's history has a message of tolerance that can help coexistence in Europe.

"It can serve as a model," Klein explained to ENI. "We don't have to lump everything together, but can coexist alongside each other with our different traditions, languages and confessions."

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'Kirchen der Stadt - Stadt der Kirchen' ('Churches of the city - City of churches') by Christoph Klein with photographs by Martin Eichler, published by the hora Verlag (www.hora-verlag.ro), ISBN-978-973-8226-68-5.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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