Highly placed officials of the World Council of Churches and the Romanian Orthodox Church have acknowledged that neither body raised a strong enough voice of protest against the suffering imposed under the regime of deposed Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Rev. Emilio Castro, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, said: "I think we didn't speak strongly enough, that is clear. That is the price we thought we needed to pay in order to help the human rights situation inside Romania."
Critics of the World Council have railed for years against what they claim is a leftist political bias among council leaders that has caused the council to refrain from protesting persecution in Communist Bloc countries--particularly in countries where council-member churches are the predominant religious voice.
Against that claim, World Council supporters have said the council believes its role is to work with its member churches, attempting to forge reforms from within--hoping that this sometimes quiet and patient approach will pay off.
The tumult in Romania and the subsequent reforms provide the latest forum for assessing what the churches did, or did not do and should have done, in the case of a nation under repression.
The Romanian Orthodox Church, a member of the World Council, issued a statement of regret last month, saying, "In the gospel spirit of repentance, we also take this opportunity to express our regret that under the dictatorship some of us may not always have shown the courage of the martyrs and have not publicly acknowledged the hidden pain and suffering of the Romanian people."
Romanian Orthodox leaders hailed the freedom that has come "after decades of slavery under the communist dictatorship" and said they are now free to speak with the lifting of "the reign of terror imposed by the repressive regime and from the obligation to glorify a megalomaniac dictator who oppressed his own people and destroyed churches and villages."
Leaders of the church, the largest religious body in Romania, promised a program of "spiritual regeneration and renewal" and said they were canceling "sanctions and prohibitions which the dictatorship forced it to pronounce against certain priests or churches for political reasons."
Those statements stand in stark contrast to the way Romanian Orthodox leaders acted during the Ceausescu years.
A case in point is the August, 1988, meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, when that decision-making body raised questions about widespread reports of human rights violations in Romania, particularly against Hungarians and other ethnic minorities.
At that meeting, a Reformed Hungarian bishop declared that it would be "a blatant contradiction" for the committee to remain silent on the issue of human rights in Romania. But Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Antonie of Transylvania said the topic should not be discussed without more information from Romanian church leaders and threatened to leave the meeting if the discussion continued.
The Central Committee ended up issuing a general directive asking Castro, the general secretary, to take "appropriate actions," to work with Romanian church leaders toward a solution and to report back to the 1989 meetings of the Central Committee and WCC executive committee.
At the July, 1989, meeting of the Central Committee, Castro recommended monitoring Romanian churches and meeting with them. But no formal denunciation of the Ceausescu regime resulted.
Most recently, through the council's official press service, Castro acknowledged that stronger actions should have been taken. But he noted, in defense of the council, "We never praised the Ceausescu regime, we never affirmed that he was an instrument of God's purpose in history."
Every situation the council encounters, Castro said, calls for a unique approach--sometimes confrontational, sometimes less so.
"In the case of Romania, we tried to apply a methodology that we thought was appropriate at that particular moment," he said. The approach there, he said, was "an attempt to give the churches of Romania a chance to fight together with their people to overcome their situation from inside."
But Castro also noted that in November, 1989, before the Ceaucescu regime was toppled, he wrote to Ceaucescu appealing on behalf of Reformed pastor Laszlo Tokes, who was under attack from both the government and the Reformed Church in Romania for his outspoken criticism of the government.
Attacks on Tokes and his family eventually became the rallying point that some observers view as the critical precipitating factor in the revolution.
Like their Orthodox counterparts, Reformed Church officials objected to criticism of the Ceausescu government.
When the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in October, 1987 expressed "deep concern" about the treatment of Romania's ethnic minorities, the country's two Reformed bishops said that judgment was "contrary to the truth."
Castro pointed to the case of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), where the World Council also pursued a strategy of working from within, to demonstrate how difficult it is to decide on an appropriate course of action.
During the upheavals there, the churches were at the center of the peaceful reform movement and now continue to play a leading role as the country puts together a new government.