Twenty years ago, a revolution was about to burst upon the world. An obsolete and inhumane Communist system began to crumble under the weight of its own lies. A generation is now coming into adulthood too young to remember the tense buildup to the euphoric scenes surrounding the breaching of the Berlin Wall, or the equally dramatic aftershocks that caused the liberation of Romania, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and eventually, the opening of Albania.
This year is an appropriate occasion to recall some of the grassroot events which, although uncoordinated, triggered unimagined outcomes. These include Lech Walensa’s trade union protest in Gdansk, the prayer and peace movement in Leipzig and other German cities, the pan-European picnic in Sopron, Hungary, and the Timisoara rebellion in Romania. Many of these movements had specifically Christian origins.
Last week I visited Timisoara for television interviews on the occasion of the launching of my book, Living as people of Hope in Romanian. My hostess, Beatris Simion, took me downtown to the town square, where thousands of Romanians had knelt on the frozen street tiles, just days before Christmas, chanting together the Lord’s Prayer.
Beatris was part of the crowd of 100,000 on December 20 shown in the top photo, looking towards the Orthodox Cathedral, more clearly visible in the photo I took last week. Here in this square is where the downfall of the dictator Ceausescu began, leading to his execution within a few dramatic days before the year’s end.
For several days on end, crowds converged on this square until, on Friday the 22nd, official word came through of the overthrow of the dictator,
By this time, the crowd had grown to 150,000. When they heard the news, the people began to shout enthusiastically, “God exists! God exists!”
Rev Peter Dugulescu was addressing the crowd from a balcony on the Opera House at the opposite end of the square to the cathedral. When he invited the crowd to recite after him the Lord’s Prayer, they instinctively turned to face the cathedral, kneeling on the frozen ground.
The Baptist pastor recalled his surprise at the ‘strong religious accent after so many years of atheistic education’. ‘This shout, this hunger for God, burst out strongly several times that day–about five times–as they prayed together this prayer and shouted: “God exists!”’
The catalyst for the gathering of the crowds in the square was the stubborn resistance of a Hungarian Reformed pastor, Laszlo Tokes. Because he had spoken out against government policies and abuse of human rights, he was ordered to move out of town to an isolated village. He refused to go, so power to his house was cut off and his ration book was confiscated. Church members rallied to support and provision him, despite some being arrested and beaten. One was found murdered in the woods.
A court ordered his eviction by December 15. As the date drew near, parishioners began a vigil outside his flat, refusing orders to move along. A human chain formed around the block, denying militia access.
News about the pending eviction spread from foreign radio broadcasts. By evening, the crowd had swelled to extend for several blocks, many students having joined the growing protest, Romanians and Hungarians together in a human chain. First they sang hymns, and then the banned revolutionary anthem, ‘Wake up, Romanian’. (After the 1989 revolution, it became the national anthem).
Crying “Down with Communism!”, the crowd moved from Tokes’ apartment towards the city centre. Militia drove them back with water cannons which the crowd seized and threw into the river. Full-scale insurrection was now underway and demonstrations continued the next two days. The army fired into the crowds killing dozens, but after tens of thousands of factory workers joined the demonstrators, the army retreated. On December 20th 1989, Timisoara was declared the first free city of Romania.
Within two days, the revolution had spread across the country and Ceausescu found himself being booed down by a huge crowd outside his palace in Bucharest. He and his wife had to flee in a helicopter, only to be placed under arrest, be tried and face a firing squad.
An improbable and unplanned revolution had been triggered by a handful of brave, faithful church members standing in solidarity with their pastor. Truly, God exists!
Till next week,
Till next week,