In December 1989, László Tőkés was one of the most beloved Reformed pastors in Western Romania. He has been pastoring the Reformed Church in Timisoara since 1986, and during his three years of pastorhood, he had been providing and recommending literature to the misguided socialist youth and launched a theatre arts club (used both as a cover for distributing otherwise banned literature and for being able to invoke any time that what was said was part of a play). However, these bold actions have drawn the Secret Police attention, because reading books and practicing arts were seen as a hallmark of critical thinking, and critical thinking was considered to be a danger to the regime. Frequenting a library and playing theatrical plays were the best cover for exercising freedom of speech, as these were activities way less controversial than exercising your freedom of speech in the police’s books, but they were still not safe. They were safer, but not safe. So the police started sending in spies and started investigating László in secret.
During 1986 – 1989, the brave pastor spoke about hope. His fellowship was meeting on the Timotei Cipariu street, in a house that was located by an old statue of Mary the Mother of Jesus, in the “Mary’s Square” (Timisoara); the small parish, originally consisting of only 10-15 regulars, started developing quickly, growing in numbers and for the first time in almost half century, a small group of people started hoping that things *could* be changed. László Tőkés, an ethnic Hungarian pastor living in Romania, was involved hands on in people’s everyday life; he was teaching them about what the rest of the world looks like outside the Romanian borders. He was also addressing the real problems of the socialist system, unlike the rest of the local priesthood who, due to fear and censorship, was avoiding the hot topic of “freedom”. In one of his most memorable sermons he was saying, “I want to tear down this wall of silence.”. He started speaking to people’s hearts, calling them to remember what life used to be like in The United Kingdom of Romania, prior to Romania becoming a Socialist Republic and encouraged them to dare dreaming about living free again.
László Tőkés is famous to this day for teaching his followers Scriptures from the Bible that were addressing political oppression. For instance, he taught people about David and Goliath. The Bible records of the battle between David and Goliad mention that armed with the inferior weapons of a shepherd, but empowered by God, David killed the mighty Goliath. Upon the death of their hero, Goliath, the Philistine army ceased fighting the Jews and scattered in fear. This triumph marked Israel’s first victory at the hands of the anonymous, insignificant shepherd. The victories then continued after David became King. Tőkés believed this story has not only a symbolical meaning, but it has a direct practical application in the political context of Romania at the time. He took the spirit in which this story was written at heart, and he started teaching his parish that each one of them can be like David of the Old Testament, who went out and fought the great Goliath – and won!
Tőkés used to say – according to his followers who have witnessed his sermons: “Never say that your battle against evil is hopeless, and that you can’t win because the evil is stronger than you are. It might be the case that the evil is stronger than you are, but you still have the responsibility to walk out in front of your people, under God, and fight.” He was also quoting Scriptures that were written for the persecuted Church during the Apostle’s time, like Acts chapter 5, verse 27-29: “The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” These Scriptures were addressing how a church should act during periods of persecution just like the times our churches were going through. It took 3 years of teaching and praying for the people and sharing banned anti-socialism materials for people to start waking up and open their eyes. People started believing that doing nothing to stop socialism is just as bad as doing everything you can to promote it. Omission to stop evil and commission of evil are both equally wrong: that was Tőkés’s message.
A message like this, in a country in which the only message allowed was Ceausescu’s message, started gaining momentum not only among Reformed Christians, but also among Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many more. But Tőkés’s messages have also caused the Secret Police to start following both him and those who were attending the Church secret meetings. At the beginning, there was a wave of “concerned citizens” who were randomly approaching those who have been seen in Tőkés’s company on the street or at work, warmly encouraging them to stay away from the community who meets in the house by Mary’s Square. The directors of the nationalized companies where Tőkés’s followers were working received instructions from the party to share friendly reminders to their employees that Christians are not an asset for the party (hence for the workplace), especially if they hang out with religious fanatics like Tőkés. These were the first signals that the community received that they were under investigation. Friendly reminders from the managers and random strangers on the streets, if disobeyed, were followed by brutal beatings or imprisonment.
In May 1989, the Bishop of the National Reformed Church decided to relocate Tőkés from the parish in Timisoara to a small parish in a God forsaken village with only a few inhabitants, where there were close to no Christians. (– To be frank, Tőkés’s relocation would have probably meant his death, rather than an actual relocation. And the parishioners knew this. Everyone knew what a “relocation” meant…)
In April 1989, the Bishop sent an official committee to the parish, to explain the community why Tőkés is going to be relocated by the party. Their explanation was that following the investigation, Tőkés was found to be a traitor of the Party and an agitator against the system. They kept telling the parish that Tőkés was living a secret life of lies, deceit, and that he is a danger to the society. During this meeting, a woman in her mid-40s, called Rozalia Tott, stood up and said: “What about us, the parish? We don’t want him to leave!” – and she tore a piece of paper from a notebook that she had at hand, and said: “We are submitting a written complaint against his relocation!” Her act seems just normal for a society in which people complain about anything; but during 1989, when merely attending a church meeting meant that you could be sent to jail in the spot for some made-up reason, to file a written complaint was an act a bravery similar to jumping in front of an oncoming train to save a child.
(I am mentioning Rozalia Tott by her name because I want you to know her name. Rozalia is what a woman of caliber is; she was a fearless woman who, among very few others, changed the history of Romania by standing up and opposing tyranny. But the couple sentences she said and her initiative to make that list were the matchstick that was thrown at the gunpowder barrel. She is the embodiment of what fierce womanhood looks like. This is what we should raise our daughters to be like, not like Anne McElvoy, Helen Lewis or Cathy Newman. We need women who act with bravery and strength, and are capable of changing the history of a nation at the blink of an eye – rather than loud, shameless ideologically possessed pseudo-intellectuals.)
The committee sent to relocate Tőkés did not expect this reaction, so they had no idea how to deal with it. In a society in which people were guarding their identity to the cost of losing their lives (because no one wanted their kids to be in danger because they went to church!), Rozalia Tott managed not only to gather a list of signatures but a list of full legal names, address as listed on the ID and workplace. People putting their signatures on a list that protested against the system meant suicide – literally. (Suicide assisted by the enforcing arm of the Party, of course, but nevertheless, certain death.) Putting your real legal name and your address and your work place on such a list meant that not only you, but also your entire household will be facing either forced labor or death. This was not only a brave list, but a heroic list of the names of the martyrs standing in the way of the system for the first time in almost half century.
That was the point of no return in the history of the Romanian revolution against Socialism. There were a handful of people who took a stand and said: “This is who we are, and we say that this is enough”. A wave of relentless persecution and coordinated harassment started against all those who put their contacts on the list. From that point on, on the street, in the workplace and everywhere they or their family members went, random people were stopping them on the street to tell them that they’re dead meat. “Oh, we know you! You’re the one who signed for Tőkés, aren’t you? Prepared your will yet?” (The “random people” were, of course, informers working for the secret police, under Party directives.) Their friends or Party appointed officials were telling them at work or during leisure time: “Your family will find you dead in a ditch one day.” or “Don’t be surprised when your kids go missing.” and other torturous slurs. That entire group of people, the entire Reformed community who defended Tőkés lived under enormous mental torture and psychological pressure from April 1989 till mid December 1989. However, due to their bravery, the Bishop determined it is wiser to postpone the relocation rather than provoking an unrest, as the number of Tőkés’s followers was ever growing.
In August 1989, Tőkés starts talking to a group of Canadian reporters about the horrific situation his parish was in. He is telling them how his house has been bugged, about how dangerous it is for people to talk against the system, about the Secret Police informers that were everywhere. In January 1990, right after the Revolution (when according to the records we lost 1166 people and thousands were severely wounded – but the numbers could easily have been higher as record keeping was no one’s first priority during the revolution), the population of Romania was composed of 23,489,160 people, out of which 400,000 Informers who were working for the Secret Police, 22,000+ bureaucrats who were processing the information provided by the Informers (these were the people working for the so-called Secret Police Institution), 15,312 people working in the State Security Department. This does not count the actual enforcers of the Security, it includes only the Informers and office staff; the precise number of the troops on the ground who were enforcing the decisions coming from the Security Department is unknown. In other words put, about 2% of the population was spying on the rest of the population or processing the information provided by the spies. To put things in perspective, remember that the opposition of American patriots to the British Empire during the American Revolution was led by 3% of the population on a 3.797 million mi² area, whilst the Romanian informers were spread only on a 92,046 mi² area. However, the population was concentrated in flats, in the cities, and each flat building had 3-7 flights of stairs, with at least 100 persons / flight. Each flight was supposed to have two official informers – at least. Practically, because of the high density in the city areas, about 1 in 3 to 1 in 5 people one knew were informers.
So Tőkés started talking to the international press about how truly unbearable life became in Romania, pointing out that no one is willing to talk about the big, murderous elephant in the room; everyone preferred to survive rather than thrive or die: “Why are we always silent? Why are we allowing the walls of silence to surround us? This wall of silence that is surrounding us is way larger and impenetrable that the Berlin Wall. It’s time for someone to break through.”, he said in his famous interview.
Mid December 1989, Tőkés and his pregnant wife were served the eviction notice from the clergy house that was annexed to the Reformed Church. On Friday, 15th December 1989, the parishioners gathered to defend their pastor. Other Christians, close friends and family of the parishioners and even mere observers who were following the events and were fed up with the system joined them. There was a lot of tension in the air, and people were all whispering to each other that it will not end well for either side if the police try to remove the pastor forcefully – but still, due to fear, no one was voicing their thoughts.
From Friday till Saturday morning, just over 200 people stood in the Mary’s Square, by the church, and didn’t say one word out loud. It was a mute protest. That silence was the expression of fear and the reflection of the psychological incapacity for people to connect to each other and form a mob. As far as people knew, everyone except the handful of people they came with could have been Informers or undercover Secret Police agents; starting the riot could have easily resulted in the agitators being swarmed and thorn limb to limb by the 200 undercover Police agents. Just because everyone was saying that they were there to protect Tőkés, that doesn’t mean it was true. In socialist Romania, nothing was true until it proved itself to be true. The fear of not knowing who you can trust, and not being sure that the other ones are with you or against you were so debilitating that the mob mentality was unable to kick in and take over the crowd. This is what extreme fear in a society looks like; people can become psychologically disabled and unable to rise up and protest.
But the Police knew that the 200 were not undercover agents, and feared them. So when the protesters didn’t do anything, the Police started screaming at the group and ordering them to go home. Likewise, Tőkés’s neighbors who were informers came out at the windows at started screaming at the protesters: “What are you all standing here for? Go home! Nobody cares about you!” Some people, trained to obey the police, trained to be tame and spineless, feared and left. And then, from the back of the crowd, one man screamed from the bottom of his heart, from the pits of utter despair, as if someone used a branding iron on him: “Down with Ceausescu!!!”
This man, just like Rozalia Tott, changed the history of Romania. To this day nobody knows who he was.
Those who have been there and remember this scene compare it with the classic zombie crowd attacks in the movies. Until that one voice broke the silence, the protesters were like a group of directionless zombies, disconnected from the reality, fearful and broken. That scream catalyzed the entire group and brought to life the darkest of beasts. It was as if for half century the entire nation was under a spell, and at the strike of a sound all the beasts that people have been holding back from taking over their bodies came with the force of a thousand good demons ready to consume the tyranny. When the crowd heard that scream, it was as if it got lit. It went crazy. They started throwing stones at the informers at the window; they attacked the Secret Police, and the bloodshed begun. People were possessed by a righteous anger and consumed with the thirst for freedom. It was as untamable as hell, but at the same time, it was as glorious as only a half-century repressed cry for freedom can get.
During this time, my parents have been informed in secret, through our Church communicating network (messengers that were going door to door) that people are gathering in Holy Mary’s Square and that there’s talk about taking Ceausescu down. I remember the conversation between my parents, their decision to go join the crowd. As soon as they left I did what I have been taught to do if we’re ever in danger: hide. So I looked for the thickest blanket I could carry, I opened the desk drawers and shoved one edge of the blanket in the drawers, closed the drawers and hid under the desk, with the blanket hanging to the ground. I felt invisible in my tent. (I was five years old at the time.)
By 8pm, the police got overwhelmed by the crowd, so they summoned the Firefighter units. From the left of the Square (North-West), the firefighters came in and started flushing the crowds with water and foam. Remember, it was mid-December, and it was cold. Everything was frozen outside. Over on the East side, the National Army came in, armed to the teeth and shielded behind crowd control shields. They ambushed the crowd. When the army and the firefighters started retaliating, the crowd got even angrier. People starting spreading in order to regroup downtown, and many got away through the network of narrow alleys that were connecting Mary’s Square with Downtown Timisoara. On their way to the center of the city, people started breaking bookstore windows and burning every single book that had Ceausescu’s picture on it and any propaganda materials they could lay their hands on.
It took about three hours for the ever growing, angry crowd to regroup downtown, burning and plundering everything in their way. Some people ran back to their neighborhoods and started gathering even more crowds. At this point, the police started making arrests and the jailhouse filled up with so many people that they overrun the capacity many times over – and people were still being brought in wet, cold and angry as they were.
While all this was happening downtown, another very large group of protesters took over the Railway station which is within the city limit and is another very important road junction. Other smaller groups started riots in their own neighborhood and for the next two days, 17th to 19th December, thousands of people were arrested, hundreds were severely wounded and according to the records, ninety lost their lives. Ceausescu’s counter attack, enforced by the National Army and the Secret Police, was brutal.
By the 20th, though, the entire country was burning. There have been other attempts in other cities, even a few years earlier – like in 1987 in Brasov – to start a riot, but the communication was so poor between towns and the information was so censored, that people in the neighboring towns found out about the events only after the riots were repressed. They were squashed while budding, before they were able to gain momentum.
The success of the Revolution in Timisoara must be at least in part attributed to the fact that it started due to a pastor. Leaving aside the supernatural element (which I full heartedly believe in), the fact that there was an underground network of churches ensured at a practical level the fast and secure communication between various groups of Christians spread across Romania. The news about what is happening in Timisoara, the news about Churches gathering to protect the Reformed Pastor and Tőkés’s reputation across the Christian community in the entire country took over the underground communication system, which the Secret Police was unable to fully control; and so, the universal Church became the structure of secure, uncensored communication between cities during December 1989.
Is the American Church ready to withstand tyranny, should it ever try to creep up on our nation?
I am aware that some of my readers do not believe in God and may be put off by the approach in this section. However, omitting the role the Universal Church played in December 1989 would not only render an inaccurate description of the events, but it would also strip the heroes of the story of the defining characteristic that made them who they are: they were Christians, and that is what defined and united them. Their memory is too sacred to me and my nation for anyone to dare to strip them of their identity in order to accommodate the non-Christian reader. Also, as a Christian, I believe a censored “non-Christian” rendering of the events would rob God of the glory that He rightfully deserves for breaking down the tyranny in Romania through the hands of the Church; I am not willing to compromise in that regards either.