In Transylvania, centuries-old churches are being “brutally revamped” using EU funds. Original features have been stripped in restoration projects mired in conflicts of interest. Luke Dale-Harris reports from Sibiu.
Standing to face a room full of angry conservationists, the Romanian Evangelical Church lawyer Friedrich Gunesch looks red faced and shaken. Over the last four hours he has faced accusations of corruption, ineptitude and the deliberate destruction of historical monuments, as restoration specialists and investigative journalists put forward evidence against his office. They are all trying to establish the same thing: How did an EU funded, multi-million euro restoration project end up wrecking many of Romania’s most treasured churches?
The buildings in question are no normal churches. Built as long as 800 years ago by a German speaking population who had settled in the heart of Transylvania, they tower like castles over the surrounding grid plan villages. Huge fortified walls hem the churches in, while church spires double as medieval look out posts and, more recently, picturesque land marks for the many hikers who come here to walk the wooded trails between the villages.
Named after the population that built them, they are known as the Saxon churches, and there are over 200 of them dotted across central Transylvania. Until recently, almost all had survived the centuries, and even the destructive march of Ceausescu’s communism, relatively unchanged.
This began to change with the introduction of EU funds. Over the last five years, almost 20 million euros ($22 million) have poured into Romania for the restoration of these churches from the European Regional Development Fund. So far, 18 churches have been brutally revamped, and another 12 have been targeted for work.
Across almost all the churches, conservationists are reporting the same things. They describe how traditional plaster was hacked off with power drills and replaced with cement, traditional wooden beams were sawed through with chainsaws and ancient engraved tiles deliberately smashed to make way for new, bright red factory-made tiles. Archeological surveys were either missed out completely or carried out quickly and inadequately.
After a visit to the site of two of the churches, John Munro, a British restoration expert working with the Prince’s Trust Foundation, wrote a letter to the Evangelical Church Office complaining that the restoration work would lead to “accelerated decay.” Citing a specific church in the village of Crit, he wrote: “I can say that I have seen many poor and inappropriate repairs on historical buildings, but none have shocked me as much as the work being carried out on the church in Crit.”
The Evangelical Church Office, and in particular their lawyer, Friedrich Gunesch, is responsible for managing the restoration projects, contracting the building companies and handling the vast sums of money that are coming in from Brussels.
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