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Romanians flock to see Billy Graham

People turned out excitedly to hear American evangelist Billy Graham wherever he went on his recent visit to Romania. His 12-day, six-city preaching tour became an outlet for a major demonstration of faith by some of the most rigorously harassed religious communities under communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Dr. Graham is now on a six-day visit to Hungary, which ends on Monday. The government in Budapest has neutralized the churches as a source of political opposition and has even enlisted them to assist in its reform programs.

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That policy stands in sharp contrast to actions by Romanian officials. Indeed, Graham's Romania visit (from Sept. 7 to Sept. 17) was a paradox, and it raises the question of why the hard-line authorities there countenanced the visit at all.

For years they have engaged in an unremitting campaign against religion in general. This has included hefty jail sentences for such ``illegal'' activity as the distribution of Bibles sent to Romania by Western and religious organizations.

A clue to official behavior appeared to lurk, however, in a brief report on the Graham tour by the official Romanian news agency.

Agerpress cited a purported remark by the preacher praising the ``full religious freedom for all religious denominations'' existing in Romania. But that was not quite what Graham himself said speaking by telephone from a stopping point in northwestern Romania to a Western news agency bureau here in Vienna.

``My impression is that Romania is an extremely religious country,'' he told the agency -- a rather different thing. If any support was needed for his statement, it was to be found in the packed churches and congregations that hung fervently on the preacher's words. Many listened by loudspeakers rigged up outside the meeting places.

Less than two months before Graham's arrival, Constantin Sfatcu, an engineer and well-known Baptist preacher in Iasi (a town in Moldavian Romania) was sentenced to 71/2 years. He had been arrested when Bibles were found in his car.

An even more painful case has been that of a Romanian Orthodox priest, Gheorge Calciu-Dumitreasa. His stubborn challenge to official interference in church life brought him a total of 21 years in prison. He was freed last year -- half way through a 10-year term -- after strong protest by religious and human-rights groups in the West.

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Two month ago he was given permission to emigrate -- but, again, only after implicit signals to the Bucharest government from the United States Congress that its most-favored nation trade advantages with the US would be at risk if Father Calciu's harrassment continued.

Such considerations might be behind the decision by Romania's President Nicolae Ceausescu to allow Graham to deliver his gospel message from Orthodox and Baptist pulpits in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, and around the country. If this, in fact, is the case, it seems unlikely to carry any conviction in the West.

None of the Romanian churches is immune from official polemical and more actual pressures. Baptist and other evangelical churches in Transylvania and Bucharest have long asked for permission to build 14 new churches, using their own funds. The requests have been ignored. Moreover, five almost completed buildings have fallen victim to ``urban renewal'' demolition squads.

The Roman Catholic Church is much less significant than either Orthodox or Baptist churches. The stronger Eastern-rite Catholic (Uniate) Church -- outlawed by the communists soon after the war -- still holds considerable influence in parts of Romania. That probably explains why its ``underground'' bishops' appeal for restoration, presented during the follow-up meetings on the Helsinki accords, has elicited no response in Bucharest.

Not surprisingly, it is currently the Baptists who are under the most severe government pressure.

Twenty years ago the Baptists in Romania numbered fewer than 100,000. They now have nearly three times that number in active worship, making it the biggest Baptist community in the whole communist bloc. Its very evident appeal to youth is a major irritant to the ruling atheistic ideology.

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