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 CNS Story:

ROMANIA-ROBU Jun-29-2006 (710 words) With photo to come. xxxi

Archbishop says building near cathedral threatens its survival

By Victor Gaetan
Catholic News Service

BUCHAREST, Romania (CNS) -- The largest Roman Catholic edifice in Romania, St. Joseph Cathedral, is being threatened by an 18-story office building with four underground levels, said Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest and several technical experts.

The building is being constructed to stand about 26 feet from the 122-year-old cathedral.

Despite intense opposition from Romania's estimated 2-million-member Roman Catholic community, daily prayer vigils and support from the Orthodox Church, construction by Millennium SRL -- a local firm representing American investors -- has continued at a frantic pace since April. The building is designed by New York-based Westfourth Architecture.

"They drilled on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, shaking the church so violently that many parishioners left in fear. They work day and night, endangering our beloved church," Archbishop Robu said in late June.

Archbishop Robu said Bucharest is an earthquake-prone city. In 1977, a magnitude-7.4 earthquake killed more than 1,500 people, mostly Bucharest residents who died when large buildings collapsed.

"If there is an earthquake, this monster will crush us," said Archbishop Robu. "As well, the cathedral is built on land that is sandy. A subterranean river runs near the plot. This is a fragile environment."

A former minister of public works and legislator, Nicolae Noica, publicly criticized local authorities for allowing the project to move ahead.

"The nature of this terrain and the water table are important obstacles to building a 75-meter (247.5-foot) tower like this one. An early geotechnical study reflected these issues, but it was suppressed," Noica said.

Numerous irregularities were confirmed in a May 10 Romanian State Office for the Inspection of Construction report signed by 12 inspectors and the state inspector general, Dorina Isopescu.

An American structural engineer, Emanuel Necula, who worked for the development project, resigned in protest, saying that at least 49 laws and regulations were being violated by Millennium SRL. In a May 29 report to Romanian authorities, Necula said, "All the ingredients for a disaster are in place."

Daiana Voicu, a representative for Millennium SRL, said June 28 the company has obtained permits required to construct the tower, expected to cost between $40 million and $45 million. She said approval from the cathedral is legally unnecessary because the new construction is not built to the edge of the property.

"We are currently in litigation with the church over the permits," she said. A hearing is expected in July.

Regarding the negative, 18-page Romanian construction inspector's report, Voicu dismissed it as biased because "Madame Isopescu is Catholic."

Besides physical risk, Archbishop Robu said he worries that the integrity of the Catholic community is undermined when people are too afraid to enter the cathedral. Parishioners from the 15 parishes across Bucharest attend Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral together with non-Catholics. Approximately 8,000 people visit every weekend.

Archbishop Robu said, "Money matters too much to the people building this tower, and there is an anti-religious tendency of obscure origin."

He said he considered it especially ironic that the church and its values were being marginalized now that Romania is free of communist control.

"The spirit of communism is still active in Romania. Under (communist dictator) Nicolae Ceausescu, we feared that the cathedral would be torn down or covered up, which was the policy toward churches at the time," said Archbishop Robu. "Instead, we are under siege today. What the communists could not destroy because of international pressure might now be destroyed, 16 years after Ceausescu's overthrow."

Under communist rule, thousands were jailed and hundreds died in prison, he said, "but our faith has been strong."

"We will rely on this faith to contest the unjust construction," said the archbishop.

Meanwhile, other churches in Bucharest have faced similar battles, the archbishop said, noting that a large centrally located Armenian church has experienced cracks and structural damage -- the direct result of a neighboring office complex built without the church's agreement.

Archbishop Robu has appealed to Romanian President Traian Basescu and leaders of the European Union to help defend the cathedral. He said he also is writing to members of the U.S. Helsinki Commission and to U.S. congressional leaders who have stood up for religious freedom.

Romanian politicians have been unresponsive so far, he said.

END


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