"What the hell do they think they are doing?"
Updated: May 3
Paolo Bassetti, a property developer from northern Italy, blocks off access to Copşa Mare's centuries' old fortified church, days before major restoration works are due to start. Why?
Paolo Bassetti, a property developer from northern Italy with substantial property holdings in the village including four guesthouses, has closed off vehicle access to the church (see picture below), throwing into doubt restoration work scheduled to begin this month on Copşa Mare's magnificent fortified church complex.
Sabine Reither, the director of Pro Groß-Kopisch e.V., the charitable foundation paying for the restoration works, has objected. She states on her Facebook page that as a result of her objections, she has been receiving abusive and intimidating emails from Mr. Bassetti. She writes: "I have been verbally attacked and several times accused of not using money in the proper way. And why? Because I do not abide by the rules of the self-proclaimed King of Copşa."
The church itself is surrounded by a group of ecclesial buildings, including a church hall, a church school, and a parish house. In the past, all these buildings were part of a whole, serving the Lutheran congregation in the village. The church authorities lost control of the school building (4) under the Communists, and it was turned into a shop. Two years ago, a Romanian registered limited company called BEPA Investitii Consult SRL, owned by Paolo Bassetti and his wife, acquired the building and some land around it. The building is empty and unused. Its windows are boarded up.
At the end of March 2022, Mr. Bassetti instructed two men in the village to close off the cart track running up to the church, marked in green in the picture below. Concrete posts and a privet hedge were ripped up. The track, it seems, crosses land now owned by the Bassettis.
Instead of a gate, which could be opened as and when required, for example by neighbours wanting to plough their land or collect hay on their plots adjacent to the church, or vehicles bringing building supplies, or even a fire engine responding to an emergency, the developer has erected a solid fence across the track.
It is not clear if the Bassettis had a topographical survey made in advance of their intervention to determine the precise legal boundaries of this, their latest in a long list of acquisitions in Copşa Mare. In addition to the old church school, the couple own over a dozen farmhouses and some 30 hectares of farmland in this village of some 250 houses.
This is a fortified church. The walls are massive, stone structures. The only other entrance into the churchyard are two doors at the end of stone steps, for the congregation, or rather for tourists these days - the great majority of Lutherans have emigrated.
"I have been using that track all my life, and I am 83!", a neighbour explains: "What the hell do they think they are doing?"
A good question. Why would Mr. Bassetti want to obstruct the planned restoration work of the church? He and his wife see themselves as 'saving the village' - by buying up large chunks of it. What some might regard as just another land grab by a rich, largely absent foreigner, the Bassettis present as a 'project in sustainable tourism'.
Whatever one thinks of their business activities, it is clear that the value of BEPA's property holdings in the village, just like the value of the immense property holdings of the Saxon church authorities throughout Transylvania, is largely driven by tourism. The fortified church in Copşa Mare is the reason most tourists visit this village. So why obstruct its restoration?
The Saxon church authorities, represented by the diocese's acting dean, Ulf Ziegler, are full of praise for the Bassettis. The official webpage of the church draws attention to the efforts of "an Italian family" to persuade local inhabitants to preserve the medieval Saxon appearance of the high street. For some reason, the text fails to acknowledge Pro Groß Kopisch e.V, which, as mentioned earlier, is raising the funds to finance the restoration works of the church.
The Bassettis are themselves long term tenants of the church parish house (building 2 in the picture above). Their tenancy agreement, which began in 2013, was recently renewed for a third time.
So we ask again: Why would Mr Bassetti and his wife want to obstruct church restoration works by blocking off vehicle access to the complex? The explanation is likely to be the leverage their acquisition of the old school house and the land in which its stands gives them over the church authorities. The Bassettis have long dreamed of adding the parish house to their portfolio of village properties. Acting dean Ziegler, with whom the Bassettis have been dealing happily for almost a decade, has thus far refused to sell the parish house to them. And now they have something to trade with the church authorities - access to the church authorities very own church.