What's Behind Romania's Church Building Spree?

Commentator Andrei Codrescu notes the complicity of the Romanian Orthodox Church in both World War II and Communist-era wrongs. Now the church is giving big new construction projects to politically connected contractors.

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In Romania, new churches are popping up at the rate of 10 a month. That's one every three days, according to a BBC report. It also includes a vast cathedral under construction in the capital city, Bucharest.

This building boom is taking place in one of Europe's poorest countries, and it has Romanian-born commentator Andrei Codrescu wondering what's really going on.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: Romania's phony tumble from communism to something called first, democracy, then original democracy, then just plain old Balkan morass, looks like it has finally found its form by adding churchness to the mix. Romanian Orthodox churches and priests are perfect exemplars of their country's past. In the fascist era before the Second World War, the priests were enthusiastic boosters of dictators and haters of all minorities, especially Jews and gypsies. In the communist era, a good many priests became willing collaborators of Securitate, the dreaded secret police, by reporting what they heard at confession.

Far from being the honorable opposition to communism that was the Catholic church in Poland, the Romanian church served its temporal masters with eagerness. Religion that Karl Marx called the opium of the people did its best here to live up to its name. After the revolution of 1989, the church started campaigning for a national cathedral intended to rival Nicolae Ceausescu's grandiose House of the People, the grand kitsch palace that bankrupted Romania in the 1980s.

Among the charges leveled against that dictator was his architectural megalomania that demolished old neighborhoods of Bucharest to make room for monuments to his power. Opposition to that project came from intellectuals who hoped that Romania's joining the European Union would bring with it a sense of proportion. As it turns out, joining the EU did not bring with it either architectural taste or a substantial change in living standards.

Instead, a growing mass of newly impoverished people turned to the church for miracles and comfort. Opinion polls showed that the church and the army were the most trusted institutions of post-communist Romania. So here come the monuments again and the parades. But these are not the old days. There are new opportunities: building contracts to be awarded, politicians to reward. The Orthodox Church gives the masses what they crave: churches on every block and renewed sermons about the grandeur of the nation, liberally sprinkled with good old anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment and, for something extra, a dash of anti-European, anti-enlightenment propaganda. It's the unbeatable formula of post-communism: high-grade opium.

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CORNISH: Andrei Codrescu wrote "The Hole in the Flag," about the mysterious events of December 1989 in Romania.

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Correction Aug. 26, 2013

A previous online description of this audio story incorrectly stated that Codrescu noted the complicity of the Romanian Catholic Church, not the Orthodox Church, in both World War II and Communist-era wrongs.

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