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Originally published Friday, March 15, 2013 at 9:44 AM

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Ethnic Hungarians in Romania mark national day

Thousands of ethnic Hungarians paraded in Romania on Friday to celebrate the Hungarian national holiday, and some expressed concern that their minority may not be allowed to retain the special privileges it enjoys.

Associated Press

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TARGU SECUIESC, Romania —

Thousands of ethnic Hungarians paraded in Romania on Friday to celebrate the Hungarian national holiday, and some expressed concern that their minority may not be allowed to retain the special privileges it enjoys.

Ethnic Hungarians, some in folk costumes, rode horses and carts and waved Hungarian flags, singing patriotic songs and shivering during traditional dances in rural mountain areas in Transylvania. They were whipped by winds with temperatures plunging to an icy -4 Celsius (25 Fahrenheit) as they celebrated the anniversary of the 1848 revolution against the Habsburg empire.

Romanian Hungarians, who make up about 6 percent of the population, enjoy special privileges such as the right to use their mother tongue in schools and in courts. But since an ethnic Hungarian party left the Romanian government last year after being a coalition partner for 15 years, some ethnic Hungarians fear their privileges could be lost.

"We call on them ... to not take away our language, not to restrict the use of our language," said Kelemen Hunor, leader of the ethnic Hungarian party. "We want Hungarian to be officially recognized in Transylvania," the Hungarian-speaking region in central Romania.

Most of Romania's ethnic Hungarians live in eastern Transylvania, a rural area with vast potato crops and mineral water springs. The region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when Hungary lost a huge swatch of its territory to Romania, Slovakia and other states. The minority faced heavy restrictions under Romania's former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. For the past two decades, the region's ethnic Hungarians have been campaigning for greater rights.

Hunor urged Romania's government to allow Hungarians to fly their flags, vowing to defend "our national symbols ... because we will defend everything that a free person and a free nation deserves." In February, tensions briefly rose after local officials hoisted a Hungarian flag on a municipal building. By law, only Romanian and European Union flags can be flown on government buildings.

Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has since tried to calm concern about ethnic Hungarians not being allowed to use their symbols, saying he doesn't object to them being hoisted from municipal buildings.

However, President Traian Basescu told The Associated Press last week that Romanian authorities are opposed to territorial autonomy for Szeklers, an ethnic Hungarian group in Transylvania.

Former Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu, a historian, told the AP on Thursday that the Romanian majority is opposed to territorial autonomy. "This discussion about autonomy complicates, rather than clarifies, the issue," he said.

On Friday, many ethnic Hungarians interviewed during the celebrations of the Hungarian national holiday in Targu Secuiesc, a city in Transylvania, said they enjoy generous rights in Romania and have good relations with Romanians. However, some said they are concerned that their interests are no longer represented at a top level in Bucharest.

"Autonomy is about dealing with our own problems," said Barnabas Csudor, a 43-year-old who works in the timber industry. "Each nation understands itself the best."

Other Hungarians said no special freedoms are needed because both Romania and Hungary are in the European Union.

"Romanians eat goulash, and we eat tripe soup," said Illes Balint, a 26-year-old ethnic Hungarian driving instructor, who was dismissive of Friday's celebrations. "I have more important things to do."

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