In Cluj, the capital of the Romanian province of Transylvania, the 15th-century Reformed church is under a joyous state of siege. There is a throng in the cobblestoned square, high excitement and a new, hopeful longing everywhere. Though services are still an hour away, the city's ancient, twisting streets are also packed with Romanians in their Sunday best—fur hats and fur coats for the men, pleated skirts, black scarves and embroidered leather jackets for the women. Finally the doors to the church are thrown open, and the crowd surges past a 14th-century statue of St. George bravely thrusting his lance into a huge dragon.

There is no small symbolism here: This crowd of about 3,000 has gathered to see and hear a latter-day dragon slayer, the Protestant minister Laszlo Tökes, 37, who lit the spark that ignited the revolution that at last brought down Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's monstrous dictator. Now, on this Jan. 21, Tökes is returning to his hometown a national hero to deliver his first sermon since being banished from preaching several years ago. As he sweeps up the aisle, guarded by soldiers against possible reprisals from old enemies, there are sighs and tears. Women reach out to touch his robe. For his text, he has chosen Isaiah, 62:4.

"Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken," the minister intones slowly, in a deep, booming voice. "Neither shall thy land anymore be termed Desolate." The congregation nods in rapt assent. Now, he is telling them, our lives are no longer without hope. Now the dragon is dead and a new beginning has been made.

The revolution that ended Romania's tyranny can be said to have been born last fall when government and church leaders tried to evict Tökes from his pulpit at the Hungarian Reformed church in Timisoara. Tökes had proved to be a gadfly to both the church and the state and, for that very reason, a friend of his people. He refused to be moved despite persecution. In September he was attacked by four masked thugs who broke into his home. The pastor, his wife, Edith, 28, and two friends battled back with chairs, bottles and whatever else they could find; Tökes was slashed across the brow with a knife, but they drove off their attackers, who, if not members of the secret police, were surely acting with their approval.

Three months later police came to deport him to the little village of Mineu. Tökes fled to his church—and there had an experience he calls "a turning point in my life. I came out of the church and saw that my parishioners had formed a human chain around it." Then the minister took a closer look and saw something even more remarkable in a country where ethnic and religious divisions are rife. "These were not only my parishioners, with a few Baptists and Adventists," says Tökes, an ethnic Hungarian, "but Orthodox priests and some of their Romanian flocks. I was very moved, and it changed what I now see as my old prejudices—that we cannot make common cause, cannot fight side by side. Now that I have seen Romanians, Germans, Catholics and Orthodox defending me, I know that I have to work for reconciliation between the nationalities and creeds in this country."

After a short-lived resistance, Tökes was finally led away, and that afternoon, Dec. 17, the people of Timisoara assembled in the main square to protest. Ceausescu ordered the army to shoot into the crowd. Several thousand died and were thrown into shallow, mass graves. The first martyrs had perished, and the revolution had begun.

Tökes and his wife were taken to Mineu and put under house arrest. Although the Securitate interrogated him mercilessly, "They didn't torture me," he says. "They wanted me to appear on TV and confess my sins during a show trial. My wife and I were to admit we were agents of Western capitalism." By luck, they found a small radio in the house and kept abreast of the news. "When we heard that Ceausescu had been arrested, it was the happiest hour of our lives," says Tökes. "We knew we had escaped death." The dictator and his wife were executed three days later.

"Just think," says Tökes's father, Istvan, also a minister in the Hungarian Reformed Church. "If those stupid bishops had not insisted upon exiling my son, Ceausescu might still be alive today."

On the afternoon before his sermon in Cluj, Tökes went to visit his parents in their small apartment behind 37 Boulevard Lenin. In the kitchen there is a collection of Hungarian wine jugs with delicate, floral designs. On the table was a thin soup with an infinitesimal amount of meat, more a seasoning than part of the meal. With his mother, Elizabeth, 66, and Istvan, 68, sitting beside him, Tökes explained how he came to be a dissident minister. "The education I had in my family was to resist Satan and stand up to injustice," said Tökes, who was raised with seven brothers and sisters. "Our church has an ancient revolutionary tradition: We think to protest is the very essence of the word Protestant."

Tökes's protests at first seemed mild enough. In his first parish in Brasov, he asked his bishop for Hungarian Bibles, song books and religious literature for his younger parishioners. Under Ceausescu, however, that was dissent. To create uniform loyalty among Romania's various ethnic groups, including 2 million Hungarians and 200,000 Germans, the dictator was waging what his enemies came to call "cultural genocide." Ceausescu's plan called for shutting all ethnic schools, seizing all historical archives, razing thousands of peasant villages and moving the residents into look-alike high-rise apartments. "The church hierarchy told Laszlo not to meddle," recalls Istvan. Tökes was transferred to Dej, and there more serious trouble began: He defiantly mixed Bible study with Hungarian folklore and was suspended. "From 1984 to 1986 he lived in my house," says Istvan, "an unemployed minister."

One of the bishops finally relented and made Tökes a chaplain at Timisoara in 1986. But when the old minister of the church died shortly after and the congregation asked that Tökes be his successor, the church, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Securitate collectively tried to evict him. When Tökes refused to budge, he was denied a ration book, leaving him unable to buy bread or meat or fuel. Parishioners who tried to bring him supplies were stopped. He was barred from seeing relatives. The most Kafkaesque harassment involved the turning off of his phone. Periodically, when service would be restored, Tökes would receive death threats; then he would be billed for the calls—at long distance rates. And then the police came for him.

Much has changed in Cluj since the fall of Ceausescu. Crates of oranges, once unknown delicacies, have arrived, a gift from Italy. The houses are a bit warmer now, and more than one bulb may be lit at night.

But still there is hardship: The monthly food ration includes only a pound of meat, two pounds of sugar and 100 grams of butter per person. And, still, there is fear. There are rumors that the army will mount a countercoup any day. The people of Cluj will tell you that "the boys from the Securitate are still walking the streets." Tökes still gets death threats, wears a bulletproof vest even under his cassock and has been given around-the-clock guards by the new government.

Yet there is hope too. Tökes may soon be allowed to return to his church in Timisoara. In Cluj he was able to speak to seminary students, who expressed their enthusiasm Central European-style by rapping their knuckles on their wooden benches with such energy that it seemed a miracle the ancient benches didn't split. And he visited Cluj's noted poet Doina Cornea, an ardent nationalist who was imprisoned under Ceausescu. "United, we could solve many problems," he said afterwards. "Meeting Mrs. Cornea was very important."

"My present situation, deserved or not, is quite symbolic," Tökes says thoughtfully, sitting in his parents' kitchen. "Now I feel free, without hierarchy or denomination. There are so many things I have to do. There are political problems to solve, the church to organize should they ask me to become bishop, trips abroad." Will his pulpit be as political as this suggests? he is asked, and he smiles. "The mixture does not bother me," Tökes says. "I believe politics is everywhere, in all aspects of life as well as in the teachings of Christ. It's nothing but caring about public matters, caring what you want your society to be like."

—Jack Friedman, Traudl Lessing in Romania

  • Contributors:
  • Traudl Lessing.