Today, fewer than 50 thousand souls live in Torda, a town just a few miles from Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) in Romania. But the settlement played a huge role in history as perhaps the birthplace of religious freedom.
The Edict of Torda was issued in the year 1568. Bishop Francis David and King John Sigismund (Zsigmond János) played a significant role in the ratification of the law, which allowed for the first time the right to religious freedom and conscience and also the right of congregations to elect their own preachers. Because of this law, Transylvania became a land of religious freedom and confessional tolerance, providing shelter for people charged with heresy in other parts of Europe less tolerant of other religious beliefs.
The Edict has close links to the founding of the Unitarian Church in Transylvania, and to commemorate the 450th anniversary of this momentous event, the Unitarians inaugurated in July a Center for Religious Freedom in Kolozsvár. The former residence of the Unitarian bishops, one of oldest remaining medieval buildings in the city, was renovated to house the new center, which includes a community area, a research center for religious studies and a museum. The Center for Religious Freedom is dedicated to the service of the community and the ideal of religious freedom and tolerance.
“I believe in this time in our culture throughout the world, there are so many religions and this is really a time of great diversity,” said Susan Frederick-Gray, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in America, at the inauguration, “and the House of Religious freedom is a house to invite conversation and dialogue — even among groups, that disagree — to find mutual understanding and hopefully increasing tolerance and peace.”
“I think a House of Religious Freedom is an opportunity,” she continued. “In a time, when there are many different religious ideas it is an opportunity for a welcome place for people to come together, to share their ideas and to build relationships. Increasingly, our world is growing smaller.
“With the internet and our connections all around the world,” said Frederick-Gray, “that presents challenges because there is so much difference in our world, but a place like a Center for Religious Freedom is an opportunity to invite dialogue. And engagement and relationship across difference.”
The Center for Religious Freedom will host Unitarian Universalists on pilgrimage from the United States and other visitors to engage Unitarians in Transylvania but also those from other religious communities.
“I see this as a birth of something, that is deeply rooted in our history,” said Frederick-Gray. “As American Unitarian Universalists, the Edict of Torda and the declaration of religious freedom is a foundation on which we have grown in the US and that we are very proud of.”
Such a radical concept in its day, the Edict of Torda was decades, if not centuries, ahead of its time. That, too, is Transylvania. In the written history of religious freedom, the small town of Torda will always hold a prominent place.