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Abu Ghraib and Pitesti

[Dallas Morning News, May 26, 2004]

While most of the world is reeling at the ugliness perpetrated by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib, I’ve had the feeling I’ve seen it all before. Rather, I’ve heard it, from a white-haired Romanian priest who suffered in the dread Pitesti prison outside Bucharest. Fr. George Calciu is now pastor of a small white-clapboard church in northern Virginia, and my spiritual father.

The genius of Pitesti was to take ordinary young men-the experiment was limited to males between 18 and 24-and turn them into the "new man," capable of forming the bedrock of the new Communist state. On intake a new group of prisoners was terrorized and beaten, and the few who looked most capable of leading others in resistance were killed. Then the torture began.

Prisoners were compelled to confess their own crimes against the state and to betray others, even beloved family members. But since the point of Pitesti was not just extortion of information but re-education (that is, brainwashing), the work proceeded in a series of "unmaskings." The phase of "public moral unmasking" required the prisoner to blaspheme and renounce their deepest emotional ties and spiritual convictions: "I lied when I said ‘I believe in God.’ I lied when I said, ‘I love my mother and my father.’" Everything that held the personality together had to be destroyed. Christians were compelled to participate in blasphemous versions of Romanian Orthodox liturgical rites: a parody baptism was performed as their heads were dunked in a bucket of urine and feces.

Prison authorities devised black masses which, according to "The Black Book of Communism," were "extremely pornographic" and "rephrased the original [service] in a demonic fashion." "The Virgin Mary was called ‘the Great Whore,’ and Jesus ‘the xxxx who died on the cross.’" On Holy Saturday in 1950, a day that for Orthodox combines the greatest Lenten solemnity with Easter hope, a seminarian was chosen to play the priest. He was stripped naked, clothed in a robe stained with feces, and around his neck was hung a phallus made of bread and soap, powdered with DDT. The other prisoners, who would in a usual church service pass before the priest and kiss the cross in his hand, were made to line up and kiss this blasphemy.

That’s not quite all. In the final phase of unmasking, prisoners were required to prove their full conversion by torturing other prisoners, including their best friends. "It was in this fourth part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves," Fr. George says. This ingenious step insured that the spirit would be utterly broken, and that distrust and misery would make cooperation in an uprising much less likely. It also meant that the prisoners got no rest; tortured by authorities all day, and at night by a cellmate.

The Devil’s malice may no know bounds, but it seems his creativity has limits. Wherever people want to hurt, humiliate, and coerce others familiar elements keep resurfacing: sexual abuse, excrement, and blasphemy. Note that last. No matter how much a culture thinks religion doesn’t matter, it still keeps coming up. An indispensable element of torture is forcing people to blaspheme their own religion, as a Muslim former Abu Ghraib detainee has told U.S. investigators he was forced to do by his American guards

What happened to Fr. George? He was detained in Pitesti from 1948-1952, but that was only the start; when released he went back to public preaching and was arrested repeatedly, spending a total of 16 years in communist prisons. In solitary confinement for seven months, he retained his sanity by befriending a cockroach that he fed with crumbs of bread. When Ceaucescu ordered his cellmates to kill him, he converted them to faith in Christ instead. Now in his late seventies, he is the full-time pastor of his congregation, participates in international church affairs, and gives speeches around the country and the world. He is cheerful, vigorous and you might say, indomitable. He has a beautiful smile.

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