Billy Graham preaches to the largest East European crowds he has ever attracted.
For more than a decade, visitors to the region of western Romania known as Transylvania have reported rapid growth and revival-like conditions in Baptist and Pentecostal churches there. Evangelist Billy Graham, who visited Romania in September, found ample evidence to support those earlier reports.
Huge throngs—applauding, singing, and chanting “Billy Graham, Billy Graham”—greeted the evangelist in almost all of the seven Romanian cities where he preached. During his 11-day visit, well over 150,000 turned out to see and hear him—the largest crowds Graham has attracted in Eastern Europe. (The evangelist has preached in five other East European countries: Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.)
With no advance notice of Graham’s visit in the Romanian press, news spread widely by word of mouth and radio broadcasts from the West. His biggest receptions came in Transylvania. In Cluj-Napoca, 20,000 people filled the streets outside the Reformed and Roman Catholic cathedrals, where he preached to 10,500 in back-to-back services. People packed the sidewalks seven to ten deep for a quarter of a mile, straining to catch a glimpse of the evangelist.
In Oradea, more than 4,000 squeezed into the Second Baptist Church, and more than 25,000 listened to the service outside on loudspeakers. Hope Baptist Church in Arad—the largest Baptist building in the country—seats 950. But nearly 2,500 crammed inside to hear Graham, while an estimated 30,000 or more packed streets and sidewalks for four blocks around the church, listening to Graham’s sermon over loudspeakers. And in Timisoara, more than 35,000 stood for hours in the plaza outside the Orthodox cathedral waiting to greet the evangelist. Inside, he preached to a audience of 5,500 squeezed shoulder to shoulder. Said Romanian Baptist leader Vasile Talpos: “We have never seen anything like this before for an evangelical preacher.”
Graham also preached to large crowds on the grounds of a Romanian Orthodox monastery near Suceava in the north, and in the Orthodox cathedral in Sibiu in the heart of Romania. In Bucharest, the capital, he preached to overflow audiences at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church and the modern Philadelphia Pentecostal Church.
Church workers said local authorities in Cluj-Napoca and Timisoara forbade the use of loudspeakers. And in Bucharest, police held crowds back several blocks from the churches where Graham was speaking. The crowds remained orderly, often singing hymns.
Graham told his audiences, “I have come to preach the gospel and to build bridges of understanding and respect between our countries.” In each service, he preached on familiar Bible themes, appealing to his listeners to become committed followers of Christ. In all, thousands lifted their hands to indicate their response.
The evangelist also touched briefly on the issue of war and peace in each sermon and in talks with government officials. He declared repeatedly, “The world cannot know ultimate peace until it turns to the Prince of Peace.”
Graham was invited to Romania by leaders of the Communist-ruled country’s 14 religious bodies, with Sibiu-based Metropolitan Antonie of the Romanian Orthodox Church serving as chief host. The prelate, who has known Graham for years, heads the Romanian Orthodox international affairs department.
The Orthodox body claims an estimated 17 million of the nation’s 23.5 million citizens. The Hungarian Reformed Church, with about 700,000 members, is the largest Protestant body. Lutherans, decimated by the emigration of the German-speaking population, are thought to number fewer than 200,000. Meanwhile, Baptists surge ahead, their ranks said to be swollen with more than 300,000 adherents—up from 60,000 less than 20 years ago. Pentecostals number around 250,000.
Questions Of Religious Rights
For years, various monitoring groups have attacked Romania’s record on religious rights. And members of Congress who visited the country earlier this year warned they will seek an end to Romania’s favorable trade status with the United States if the rights violations continue. That is a consequence the economically strapped country can ill afford.
Romanian church leaders say privately that controversies between church and state must be judged almost on a case-by-case or issue-by-issue basis. For example, a church building may be earmarked for demolition as part of a local urban renewal program that will claim several hundred other buildings, and the authorities may be slow to approve replacement quarters. Or an effective evangelical pastor may suffer the displeasure of a local official who is motivated more by innate Romanian Orthodox loyalty than by Marxist ideology. The official may want to slow evangelical church growth, fearing that it comes at the expense of the Orthodox church. Prior to World War II, ethnic Romanian evangelicals suffered at the hands of the Orthodox church.
Other restrictions on religious freedom, however, do involve central government policies. For instance, Romania has been the home of a number of ethnic and linguistic minorities. But it now seems bent on forging greater national unity based on a common language and other factors. This has been especially hard for many in Transylvania, which was a part of Hungary until after World War I. It is also hard on the German minority, whose roots in the area date back several centuries. A Lutheran churchman suggested that within 15 years, virtually no Germans will be left in Romania. Many have gone to West Germany under an arrangement whereby Romania receives cash from Bonn for each emigre. Government officials insist that there are no national policies of religious repression, and they dismiss charges of ethnic discrimination.
Although Graham skirted controversial political issues during his visit, he alluded to the reports of religious repression during a press conference in Bucharest. “It must be acknowledged that believers in Romania live in a society that is governed by an atheistic ideology, and it is to be expected that there are tensions from time to time,” he said. “I have pointed out that Americans have a deep interest in the religious life of all denominations in Romania, and I have discussed the concerns many Americans have about specific issues on church-and-state relations in my private discussion with ranking officials.”
Some observers feel that Graham’s appearance at the Second Baptist Church in Oradea served to underscore his point. The Oradea church, home of one of Romania’s largest Baptist congregations, last year was ordered razed by local officials to make way for urban renewal (CT, Oct. 5, 1984, p. 100). Authorities recently postponed implementation of the action until next spring to give the congregation time to build a $1.5 million structure designed to accommodate nearly 3,000 persons. Perhaps mindful of foot-dragging by officials in other church relocation cases, pastor Nicolae Gheorghita invited Graham to attend the dedication of the church’s new building next year.
At the service in Arad, Graham alluded to the fact that many Romanians are attempting to emigrate to the West. He appealed for Christians to stay in Romania—“where God has placed you, and be a witness for Christ here.” It is difficult to be a true Christian in Romania, he said, but it is also hard to be one in America because of materialism and other temptations. Later, he told reporters his appeal was meant mostly for Christian leaders, whose presence is needed to nurture the rapidly growing numbers of Romanian believers.
Romanian Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae of Timisoara said Graham’s visit had brought the denominations closer together; helped fuel a renewal movement in the Orthodox church; and taught many priests how to preach better. The metropolitan added that Graham had underscored the importance of evangelism in the church’s work.
The visit was timely, he said, because Romanian Orthodox believers are reading the Bible more than ever, despite a shortage of Bibles in most denominations, including the Orthodox church. They also are demanding more biblical preaching from their priests.
Metropolitan Nicolae predicted: “We will be feeling the effects of this visit for years.”
EDWARD E. PLOWMANin Romania
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