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The pastor who brought down a dictator

You’ve probably heard of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa of Poland, both Nobel laureates and heroes of the Cold War who precipitated the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe a quarter of a century ago.

But how many of us know the story of Laszlo Tokes, a Protestant pastor who in December 1989 stood up to the Romanian communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu and sparked a people’s revolution that freed Romania from a totalitarian tyrant the equal of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin?

In the spring of 1989, while other Soviet satellites were challenging their communist leaders, Romania remained in the iron grip of the Ceausescu regime. Few dared to speak out against “President” Ceausescu and his Stalinist secret police, the Securitate.

A notable exception was 37-year-old Laszlo Tokes, the assistant pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church in the Transylvanian town of Timisoara. The theme of his sermons was simple but arresting: “We do not have to support the dictatorship and the dictator Ceausescu.” No one had dared utter such a public challenge.

Ordered to stop preaching, Tokes refused. Directed to leave the apartment in which he and his family were living and move to a distant isolated town, he refused. In November, attackers armed with knives broke into his church apartment, but Tokes and friends fought them off. In mid-December when an eviction order was issued, members of Tokes’ congregation began a vigil outside his lodging, and a human chain formed around the block.

By the evening of Dec. 15, 1989, the crowd had increased to several thousand, including students, Romanians as well as Hungarians, Orthodox as well as Protestants. They began singing Wake up, O Romanian! a song banned in 1947 by the communists. They shouted, “Down with Ceausescu!” and “Down with communism!”

Two days later, on direct orders from Ceausescu, communist troops fired on a large crowd gathered in the town center of Timisoara, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of innocents. This cowardly, bloody act was the catalyst for a spontaneous people’s revolt that quickly spread across the country and to the capital city of Bucharest.

Confident he had the backing of the populace, Ceausescu went to the main square and tried to give a speech listing the socialist “accomplishments” under his rule. To his shock and amazement, he was interrupted by jeers, boos and whistles. Unable to control the crowd, he and his wife, Elena, fled the city in a helicopter only to be forced down and taken prisoner by a new government. After a short trial by a special military tribunal, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed on Dec. 25, 1989.

Today, Laszlo Tokes, the courageous pastor who brought down a dictator, continues to speak out for freedom and against totalitarianism as a member of the European Parliament and a bishop of the Reformed Church in Romania. A modern St. George, Bishop Tokes stands ready to battle any force that threatens the faith and the freedom of those whom he represents as pastor and political leader.

Let us give thanks in this holiday season for Havel and Walesa and Tokes, for all the men and women on both sides of the Iron Curtain — the known and the unknown — who resisted and kept on resisting the evil empire over a span of 40 years so that Marxism-Leninism would wind up where it belonged: on the ash heap of history.

Lee Edwards, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation.

©2014 The Heritage Foundation