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Anti-Communist Priest Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Rev. Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa, 80, an anti-communist Romanian Orthodox priest who was imprisoned for 21 years in his homeland, died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 21 at Inova Fairfax Hospital.

Father Calciu, a priest at the Holy Cross Romanian Orthodox Church near Baileys Crossroads since 1989, was a hero to his religious brethren and to anti-communists around the world for standing up for his beliefs despite long prison terms, torture and death threats. He was released from prison after supporters, including then-President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush, pressured Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Father Calciu was forced into exile in 1985 and had lived in Northern Virginia since.

Father Calciu (pronounced Cul-chew), who in the mid-1980s preached on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, returned to Romania in 1990 to celebrate a Mass in Bucharest's central University Square, despite being followed by the government's security police.

He was first imprisoned for making speeches against the imposition of Communist rule in 1948, when he was a 21-year-old medical student from Mahmudia, Tulcea, Romania.

"We protested atheism, the collectivization of the means of production, destruction of the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie," he told The Washington Post in 1989. "The Communists did not support this, and I was put in prison for 16 years."

In that confinement, he came to admire the priests who were also jailed, and his faith grew. Released during a general amnesty, he was forbidden from studying theology. So he studied French for four years, then secretly arranged to study for the ministry with the consent of Justinian, the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

His clandestine faith was discovered by secret police in 1972. To save his life, Justinian appointed him professor of French and the New Testament at the Orthodox Seminary in Bucharest. He was ordained that year. For the next five years, Ceausescu's government tolerated his anti-Marxist sermons. But after Justinian's death in 1977 and the appointment of a hard-line church patriarch, conditions worsened.

Father Calciu announced plans to give a series of seven Wednesday sermons in the winter of 1978. The sermons attacked Ceausescu's persecution of religion; after the third, he was thrown out of the church. He then preached on the church steps. The government closed the gates to the seminary, but the faithful climbed over the seminary walls to hear him. The new patriarch expelled the dissident priest, and, deprived of the church's protection, he was arrested.

Prison the second time was much worse. "Ceausescu saw me as his personal enemy," Father Calciu said. "For this he applied to me special methods of torture."

When he did not break, the government decided to have him killed by two cellmates, convicted murderers who had been promised leniency if they would kill him. He was made to stand in a corner of the cell and not allowed to eat, drink, speak or relieve himself without permission, and he was often beaten.

After three weeks, the other two prisoners were summoned by the head of the secret police. When they returned, Father Calciu said, his tormentors were subdued. Taken to a small prison yard, his cellmates told him to stand in one corner while they conferred. Ready to die, Father Calciu confessed his sins and prayed for his family. Fifteen minutes later, the men approached him.

"And the youngest one said, 'Father,' -- and that was the first time they called me Father -- 'we have decided not to kill you.' "

That Sunday, he asked their permission to celebrate Mass. He was making preparations and turned to see the two criminals kneeling on the cold concrete floor.

Throughout Father Calciu's imprisonment, the Reagan administration lobbied Ceausescu for his release. In August 1983, those efforts, and the dictator's fear that the United States would rescind its most-favored-nation trading status, led to the priest's release.

The secret police told him that he was being transferred to a special prison where he would die in anonymity. But the next day, he was released.

Father Calciu spent the next two years under house arrest before Ceausescu sent him into exile in the United States in 1985 with his wife, Adriana Calciu, and son, Andrei Calciu, both now of Burke. A grandson also survives.

The 1989 Post article described Father Calciu's face "pink as a child's and his eyes are an unclouded blue. Something in his gaze suggests the triumph of joy over anguish."

"From the beginning of my time here, I decided to tell the truth, to awaken the conscience of the Western people who thought Ceausescu was like a maverick from Communism," he said. "He was a big criminal and I knew it."

In Washington, he led demonstrations and lobbied Congress in addition to preaching radio sermons, still vocal in his criticism of atheism in Romania's government. The FBI told him in 1989 that Ceausescu had dispatched assassins who were looking for him. He hid in rural Pennsylvania for a short time, returning each weekend to celebrate Mass at Holy Cross parish. But he said he had already survived two attempts on his life by poisoning and finally shrugged off the threat. He was the pastor of Holy Cross at the time of his death.

Although the priest originally wanted to return to Romania to live, he ultimately decided that his calling was in Virginia, building the church and alerting the world to the situation in his homeland. Hundreds of people greeted him every time he returned for a visit. He will be buried in Romania.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company