Bishop carries torch for Romanian minority

Local heroes: Bishop Laszlo Tokes
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As befits a Calvinist bishop and a man with a cause, Laszlo Tokes has a stern air which does not lend itself to smiling. But he softens as he thinks back to December 1989 and the tumultuous events in the western Romanian city of Timisoara which precipitated the downfall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Then a priest in Timisoara, Bishop Tokes was the spark for the revolution, a man of principle who dared to speak against the system. The masses gathered in protest around him, following an order for his eviction.

"What a marvellous moment," he recalled. "For a few brief weeks we were all united [in our aim] to get rid of the evil Ceausescu, after which we hoped everything would change."

Like most Romanians, Bishop Tokes, now 44, hoped the toppling of Ceausescu would lead to the rapid establishment of democratic freedoms. In his case, however, there was a particular concern over the well-being of the country's large ethnic Hungarian minority, of whom he is one.

After decades of persecution under the Communists, the country's ethnic Hungarians, who are concentrated in Transylvania, hoped to gain linguistic and cultural rights and to halt the erosion of their identity.

For a while it looked as though they might succeed. Ethnic Hungarians and Romanians had stood side by side in the revolution and, in recognition of the role he had played, Bishop Tokes was invited to join the now ruling National Salvation Front in Bucharest. Ceausescu's successor, Ion Iliescu, was promising minority rights.

But the honeymoon did not last. Within weeks ancient frictions resurfaced and in March 1990 four people were killed in clashes between Romanians and ethnic Hungarians. In the years since, Bishop Tokes, who doubles as honorary president of the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania, has continued to champion the rights of ethnic Hungarians.

The bishop is revered by his own people, but Romanian nationalists see him as the Devil incarnate, whose real aim, they claim, is to bring Transylvania back under Hungarian control - as it was until the collapse of the Austro- Hungarian empire in 1918.

Bishop Tokes's adoption of the ethnic Hungarian cause has cost him dearly. In addition to death threats, he has endured what he describes as a campaign of vilification and intimidation. Instead of gaining rights - to education in Hungarian, for instance - his people have been losing ground, he insists.

A friendship treaty signed by Hungary and Romania last week was supposed to resolve the issue of minority rights. In return for Budapest's acceptance of the permanence of the current border, the Romanian government agreed to a host of minority-rights regulations as laid down by bodies such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

According to Bishop Tokes, however, the treaty was a sham, and offered no concrete rights to the 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania. It was simply intended to shore up both countries' bids to join the European Union and Nato.

"It was a shame; it was the perfect opportunity to really improve things for us," he said. But he does not intend to give up. "Since the events in Timisoara in 1989 my life has been predetermined. I am devoted to this politics and this people. I am a pastor after all. I have a calling."