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Diaspora’s impact in defusing the pressures of civilizational tectonics

Updated: Jul 22, 2019

This article was originally published on

On the European continent, the modern Romanian state is the posterchild for undercutting pressures in civilizational tectonics, a picture that Samuel P. Huntington so hauntingly laid out in his post-Cold war portrayal of the “clash of civilizations” thesis. Built at the confluence of Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian Imperial borderlands, Romania’s trifold cultural heterogeneity resonates still and parlays into current socio-political divisions and governance expectations. The spatial distribution of the country’s large diaspora may however gradually limit the salience of exclusivist identity politics and hopefully nurture an inclusive vision for national identity and social cohesion.

Conservative estimates approximate between 3 to 5 million the number of Romanians working and living abroad, mostly in western European Union (EU) member states. The Romanian diaspora represents an estimated 17% of the country’s remaining population and this diaspora’s financial muscle and political orientation is increasingly vital in reshaping the country’s political culture and very definition of nationhood. It is within this context that one has to understand the country’s exacerbated need to engage in identity politics that go beyond the territorial definition of the state. If demographics is destiny, Romania has to reinvent its non-territorial understanding of national belonging or it will implode even without the involvement of irredentist neighbors or geostrategic foes.

In casting its European destiny Romania may have an unexpected champion, Pope Francis, a community engaged Jesuit backed by a venerable global institution that proves adapt at squaring off with European populists by undercutting their monopoly over the public discourse of identity politics. With an eye on the long-term demographic trajectory and destiny of Romanians in Europe, the recent visit of Pope Francis to Romania on May 31- June 2highlights the long road ahead in consolidating an inclusive Romanian national identity within the European family of nations. The impressive mobilization of Romanians and the genuine warmth of the reception of the head of the Holly See in this predominantly Orthodox land may have been read in the international press as a principally ecumenical gesture and secondly as a diplomatic one of parochial consequence. For many Romanians, especially for millions of them living the diaspora, it was a timely historic visit of far deeper importance. In the heterogeneous European political context of rising xenophobia and nationalism, in the context of irredentist neighbors and geopolitical rivalry, Romanians needed a credible international voice to recast an inclusionary vision of European solidarity and they seem to have found it in the Jesuit Argentinean son of Italian emigrants.

Pope Francis has proven to be the most skilled of any European leaders in constructively engaging identity politics head on and undermining the rhetorical monopoly of far-right politicians. In his three day visit he was masterful in undermining manufactured inter-ethnic tensions stroked by both Hungarian and Romanian far-right elements in Transylvania, he healed historic wounds through rituals of symbolic reconciliation and paid homage to the victims of communism and the victims of discrimination. Most importantly he centered his homilies on the families affected by emigration and paid homage to the millions of Romanians living abroad, the people that keep the country afloat through remittances, agents of change within both their native and host communities. He offered a vision for Romanians to assert their Byzantine Latinity within the family of European nations.

Within days following the European Parliament elections, Romania mobilized impressive protocol and security resources for the three-day state visit of Pope Francis. Why was the head of the Vatican greeted with greater pomp than all the leaders of EU member states who gathered at a EU Summit in Sibiu earlier in May? Pope Francis’ warm reception by the Romanian masses might seem odd for a dominantly Orthodox country where Catholics barely make up 6%. The country’s demographics and civilizational tectonics might shed some light on the actual stakes of the Papal visits to the most historically charged and tense sites of the country, his traveling to poverty and emigration stricken Moldova and multiethnic Transylvania.

One symbolic aspect of the pilgrimage was the “brotherly” relationship with the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC), a visit framed by the 20-years anniversary since the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999, a first Papal visit to an orthodox dominated country since the Great Schism of 1054. The chanting of the Romanian masses for “unity” in 1999 was an outburst of mass emotion that echoed the calling of Romania as the only orthodox country with a neo-Latin language that is emotionally, historically and culturally tied to Rome. That visit created an ecumenical opening that allowed the Catholic and the Romanian Orthodox Church to speak of the “two lungs with which Christianity breathes.” Since then the Vatican supported Romania’s bid for Euro-Atlantic integration but the political ties didn’t always meet with the reciprocity of the ROC. Thirty years since the fall of communism the ROC is still reluctant to restitute many of the Catholic churches confiscated by communists and transferred into ROC parishes. Despite the one-sided impasse the Catholic Church has remained open to the prospect of full communion and marshalled its support offering 426 Catholic churches in the EU (over 306 in Italy) to be used by the ROC to gather and serve the Romanian diaspora.

In his humble altruism the Pope holds the upper hand. There are some 1.2 million Romanians officially living in predominantly Catholic Italy, marking them as the most important foreign-born minority in Salvini’s increasingly xenophobic country. In Catholic Spain the official records have Romanians at around eight to nine hundred thousand, or some 15.6% of Spain’s total foreign population, making them one of the top two foreign-born ethnic minorities on the peninsula. The same goes for Germany where they are one of the top five ethnic minorities. In Catholic Ireland, Romanians make up the 4th largest foreign-born ethnic group. Irrespective of how recalcitrant the ROC might actually be, the assistance with safe-heavens across western Europe is one hard to pass, especially if ROC seeks to remain a “national” church.

In a show of gratitude ROC Patriarch Daniel made it publicly known that Pope John Paul II had secretly given a substantial donation for the building of the new Romanian National Cathedral in Bucharest making him a patron of the tallest and largest Orthodox cathedral in the world. Reading between the lines, the Romanian Patriarch might have intended to sideline hardline conservatives within his own synod who look with suspicion at the moves of the Holy See. Pope Francis likely faces similar backlash from skeptics within his clergy. Those clergy hardliners have their role to play in legitimating the two leaders and in calibrating the scope of what they may achieve together.

Pope Francis’ visit with the Patriarch Daniel simulated a relationship amongst equals, a deferential treatment designed to place the ROC as a major ecumenical player amongst the Orthodox Churches at a time of crisis. Late last year, likely spurred by the financial backing of the North American Ukrainian diaspora, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the ‘primus inter pares’ among the heads of all national orthodox churches, threw his backing behind an independent Orthodox Church for Ukraine. In doing so he ended 300 years of Russian control over Ukraine’s church and entered in open conflict with the Russian Patriarch. With the dominance of the Russian church contested in a Slavonic-speaking country, tensions are flaring all over, including in neighboring independent Moldova where the ethnic Romanian Orthodox Church is in a similar showdown with the Russian Orthodox Church. Pope Francis, who holds close ties with Patriarch Bartholomew and likely hopes to prop him, is seen as attempting to indirectly interfere in the affairs of Slavic Orthodox churches. The Russian Orthodox Church perceives these changes as a direct affront to its exclusive cultural spheres of influence, a position closely tied with Kremlin’s diplomacy. The tensions explain in good measure the cold reception Pope Francis received last May from the Russian backed Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarch in Sofia. In this “game of thrones”, Patriarch Daniel’s position and the potential mediatory role of the ROC weighs heavily on how Orthodox churches in the region orient themselves.

Ecumenical diplomacy aside, Pope Francis used his address to the political establishment gathered at the Presidential palace in Bucharest to “pay homage to the sacrifices endured by so many sons and daughters of Romania who... have enriched those countries where they have emigrated, and by the fruit of their hard work have helped their families who have remained at home." He didn’t just implicitly scold the out of touch political class for their failure to serve the poor and marginalized and for forcing them to leave their homes and seek employment abroad. He walked the walk and went to Iasi, the largest city in poverty stricken Moldova to meet the many families of migrants whose sacrifices he praised. The choice of Iasi was a gesture meant to reach beyond Romania’s borders, extending to ethnic Romanian citizens of neighboring Moldova, many of whom hold dual Romanian citizenship that allows them to easily cross the border but most importantly allows them labor mobility within the EU. His homily centered on the uprooting of whole communities, the stark depopulation of ethnic Romanian villages in the process of massive emigration.

Historic truths that divide

In Romania, it is ethnic Hungarians that form the majority of Catholics and in a show of true leadership, Pope Francis met head-on the gauntlet thrown by far-right Hungarian politicians. He went and held mass in Hungarian at the Marian pilgrimage site at Şumuleu-Ciuc, in the heart of Transylvania. He did that in the presence of Hungary’s president János Áder and addressed a crowd of mostly Hungarians, many of whom hold both Romanian and Hungarian citizenship. Smack in the middle of Romania and far from the Hungarian border lays the Szekely Land, a picturesque predominantly rural region dominated by ethnic Hungarians. Visited several times by PM Viktor Orbán and his radical Fidesz ideologues the Csíksomlyó outdoor Marian altar is the frequent site of right-wing Hungarian rallies complete with religious rituals that end with the chanting of the Hungarian anthem. The politicized holy ground is a potent national symbol for Hungarians but for the totally opposite reasons than the ones proscribed by Fidesz. The historic Szekely minority speaks a Hungarian dialect and have a right to affirm their unique heritage but their identity is actively reshaped by Budapest into a Hungarian diaspora to be “protected” as framed within the irredentist rhetoric largely crafted for Hungarians’ electoral consumption. Szekelys’ interest in historic autonomy equally from Vienna, Budapest or Bucharest is simplistically subsumed to serve the current rhetorical needs of Hungarian populists. That independence was based on edicts of religious tolerance and hard earned minority privileges that at times protected them from protestant Hungarians, Habsburg dominion or Romanian assimilation. Both Hitler and Stalin and all the autocrats of Romania and Hungary have used the inter-ethnic rivalry in Transylvania to stoke division and maintain power in the region. That politicians such as Hungary’s Victor Obran or Putin would benefit most out of an escalation of violence in Transylvania and a destabilization of Romania would no longer surprise anyone. It takes two to tango however and Romanians’ response can stave off the prospect of escalating tensions. The region has the whole spectrum of run of the mill manufactured events of inter-ethnic tensions from showdowns on removal of public statues and memorial sites, to contesting cemeteries and provocations related to the use of language in schools and universities.

The Romanian state has successfully nurtured a tolerant accommodating legal framework and the ethnic Hungarian party (UDMR) has often been a kingmaker junior partner serving in most of Romania’s governing coalitions on both sides of the political spectrum. The long-standing track record of governance of this Hungarian party has not benefited from the irredentist rhetoric spewing from Budapest but the funding that comes from Orban’s Fidesz party is a tantalizing patronage that comes with streaming television stations and an exclusivist logic that no moderate Hungarian politician can ignore. For the Szekely, their autonomy is genuinely important, especially after a long history of communist-era social engineering that favored the relocation of Romanians within major urban centers. They are however poorly served by Hungary’s attempts to escalate tensions. Rather they would benefit from increased tourism, a tolerant, inclusive state that affords them a good degree of self-governance and strong EU institutions that would uphold their gained rights and freedoms. So far, the Romanian electorate has not endorsed the nationalist rhetoric but there is salience for such mobilization given the continental rise of tribal banners. If demagogues win through a rhetoric of division, it is Szekely minority that risk the most in becoming cannon fodder and Pope Francis showed wisdom and diplomacy to go in this most contested site and undercut the discourse of violence with one of tolerance.

Historic truths that unite

The other Transylvanian site of the Papal visit was at the Liberty Field of Blaj, the historic seat of the Romanian Church United with Rome (RCUR), a Byzantine rite Romanian church that recognized the primacy of the Holy See since the early 1700s. The location is one of the most potent sites in the history of ethnic Romanians becoming a politically recognized nation within the Habsburg Empire. It is a history closely tied with the efforts of Jesuits to secure that the Habsburg empire remained Catholic. Through the stroke of a pen Orthodox Romanians recognized the Pope as head of their Transylvanian Orthodox Church and loyalty to the Emperor. In return they obtained recognition and protection in Transylvania alongside Hungarian nobility, the Szekely and Saxon settlers. Securing the political representation of Romanians as the major demographic group of Transylvania was a major political coup that Jesuits once pulled off to prop a brittle, elite-created Habsburg empire. It was a risky game of identity politics that incidentally gave rise to the “Transylvanian school,” the vital ideological basis for the formation of the current Romanian state. Irrespective of the confessional belonging of Romanians today, the country owes a great debt to this minority RCUR in Transylvania. It is in Blaj that the leaders and intellectuals of this church first appropriated a national history based on the Latinity of the dialect spoken by ethnic Romanians and transposed it into a political movement. The existence of Romanian as peoples within the political realms dominated by the Ottoman and Russian empire didn’t produce the intellectual basis for national formation, a modern ideology of a Latin based Romanian identity. Both Ottoman and Russian dominated provinces leaned towards Greek speaking elites and the Cyrillic script. It was in Blaj in 1737 that Biblia Vulgata was translated into Romanian well ahead of the Orthodox Churches in Romanian Principalities which kept the Slavonic liturgy until 1863. It was only within the multiethnic Habsburg context that political identity formation took on its current Romanian form. In other words, a Transylvanian Romanian diaspora exported a national ideology in the already independent Romanian Principalities. The fact that the Catholic church held such an important role in the formation of Romanian national consciousness is the actual historic thorn in the side of ROC and its claim of being a “national” church. Jesuits once used the Latin cultural receptivity of Romanians to prop up the Holy See’s political influence on the continent in the context of a heterogeneous Habsburg Empire and that history might inform the extent of what may yet be possible within the current European context.

In a bid for historic reconciliation Pope Francis beatified seven Romanian bishops of the RCUR as Christian martyrs fallen under communism. One of these men, Bishop Hossu was central in drafting and reading the Proclamation of the Union of Transylvania with Romania on December 1, 1918. These were true patriots who ended up dying in Romanian communist jails, a repression condoned if not assisted by the ROC. The beatification ritual put the spotlight on the absence of a true national reconciliation with the crimes of communism, a much wider context of an entire western educated national intellectual elite that was exterminated in order to ensure no resistance would be posed to the soviet occupation and intended russification of this territory. The role of the ROC clergy in being assimilated as a useful tool of repressive totalitarian regime remains largely a taboo topic in Romania. By paying homage to the beatified martyrs Pope Francis reaffirmed the personal sacrifice of an intellectual elite that conferred a European vision and destiny on a nation defined by its Byzantine Latinity, a most valiant sacrifice at bridging civilizational divides.

Discerning which truths to uphold

Maybe the road ahead in pursuing European solidarity lays not in creating a cosmopolitan elite above all parochialisms, but in embracing and reaffirming the various layers of identity politics within a common framework and vision. Romania can only hope to overcome its troubled history of interregional socio-economic and cultural divisions within the wider context of European nations, sharing democratic principles and a common political culture that values diversity, inclusivity and tolerance. The clout of its diaspora will be a vital asset in fighting parochial political figures who demand monopoly over identity politics by stoking fear and division. By retaking the reigns of identity discourse and projecting a common vision for an inclusive solidarity, the Pope may show the way towards fighting tribalism and xenophobia. Churches have historically been social institutions of much rivalry and division but they are nonetheless social institutions entrusted to lead with a long-term vision and an ethical compass the patterning and construction of social forms of inclusion and exclusion. Their leaders are vital in reshaping forms of belonging and identity affirmations that impact attitudes towards irreversible social changes, towards governance and ultimately political outcomes. In the absence of lay political leadership capable of projecting a vision for needed solidarity in times of rapid social transformations maybe the clergy should be seen as a social stakeholder in drafting that vision for European continental stability. Their parishioners are increasingly members of vulnerable transnational social groups, all placed at high risk by far-right politicians, all stakeholders in upholding a culture of tolerance.


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