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Socialistic Czechoslovakia

During the post-war period churches represented an influential political power. According to a population census, 99.72 % of inhabitants identified with a church and only 0.28 % claimed to have no religion. Catholic Church of Latin and Byzantine rite was the biggest and most influential, comprising 82.75 % of inhabitants. Other significant churches were Evangelic Church of Augsburg Confession and Calvinistic believers. Baptists, Adventists, Methodists, Orthodox and other churches had only minimum number of followers. Within People’s Democratic Regime, the government proclaimed and actually ensured the freedom of religion in practice. All churches showed the loyalty towards the restored Czechoslovak Republic. In Slovakia, the situation of Catholic Church was a bit more complicated and its relations with state more tense when compared with other churches. It paid its bitter price for its ties with the Hlinka’s Public Party – the creator and bearer of reign and force in the Slovak Republic in between 1939 – 1945. The ban of Hlinka’s Public Party and lawsuit with Tiso and other state representatives harmed also Catholic Church, since the dividing line between Catholic Church and political Catholicism was not firmly laid. The government had a negative attitude towards majority of Catholic bishops who were extra-connected with Tiso’s former regime. Chief representatives of Evangelic Church of Augsburg Confession had close political contacts with after-war, predominantly Evangelic leadership of Democratic Party. Reformed Church was practically lame and divided after the war in connection with the then sharpened Slovak-Hungarian relations. Slovak clergy stood at the head of church, whose majority was comprised of Hungarian nationality believers. The majority of clergy of Hungarian nationality did not have Slovak state citizenship and could not perform official functions within the church. Thus their impact on social happening was minimal.
By the February subversion in 1948 and shortly after, dismantling of what was left of democracy in Czechoslovakia came to its peak. Communists took over the power. The prior interest of communist regime was to manipulate churches according to its own interests via their representatives. Though, when these steps did not prove effective, communist force put the center of anti-church activities on minimizing its social influence and establishing a strict state control.
The Act No. 217/1949 Coll. created State Office for Church Affairs as a central organ of state administration. One year later a law on economic provision of churches and religious associations by state was passed. This regulation enabled the state a differentiated approach towards clergy. This law also brought to existence the institute of “state approval” for clergy. Churches and religious associations ceased to have character of public law subjects and became completely dependable on state economically. Majority of church property, and church schools were nationalized. State had control over liturgical, pastoral, social, charity, educational, economic and any other activity of churches. It established compulsory registration of churches; the clergy was enabled public performance only if approved by state. This approval was conditioned by their vow of loyalty to the republic.
Communist state had never been considering separation of church from state. It assumed that such step within given historical conditions would raise social influence of churches. It would also strengthen the discipline of clergy towards church hierarchy. This represented a counter-productive element for the then state power struggling to disintegrate churches from within. Naturally, the strict totalitarian control of churches activated illegal activities of individual believers, clergy or various groups that were out of the reach of state control. They became the target of persecution by national security forces.
The period of 1948-1953 represented an extremely acute conflict situation in state-church relations. Churches resisted interference into their internal matters and restriction of religious freedom with a remarkable intensity. During the following stage, state power concentrated on “overcoming religious relics” through governmental interventions as well as party and state structures supporting secularization and atheisation of society. Some bishops, priests and monks were imprisoned. The vacant positions of church hierarchs were occupied by administrators appointed by communist government. The government also had its attendants on bishop ministries who controlled the activities of episcopacies.
In August 1948 communists came with an idea to create a national Catholic Church. Because of the ceremonial and disciplinary differences between Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics they consequently started to sort out the “Greek Catholic issue”. They proposed “return” of Greek Catholics into Orthodox Church. In 1946, a so-called “sobor” (council) took place in Lvov, western Ukraine. Here, union with Rome was abolished and a return of Greek Catholics to the belief of their ancestors, to Orthodox Church was proclaimed. Since the standpoints and acts of Russian communists were authoritative for Slovak communists, similar procedure was chosen in Slovakia as well. After the Russian Orthodox Church delegation visit to Czechoslovakia (whose aim was to prepare fusion of Greek Catholic and Orthodox church in Slovakia), this political plan was given a name Action P. On April 28, 1950, sobor (council) of Greek Catholics with participation of Greek Catholic delegates appointed by state power took place in Prešov. It made a decision on abolition of Uzhorod Union from 1646, separation from Rome and return to “father” Orthodox Church. At the same time it addressed Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and whole Russia to accept it under his church jurisdiction. On May 27, the Exarch of The Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia – Jelefterij, received a letter from the State Office for Church Affairs. The letter acknowledges the legitimacy of decisions taken by Prešov sobor. From the point of view of state power Greek Catholic church ceased to exist in Slovakia. Greek Catholic clergy, who refused to enter Orthodox Church had to give up cleric profession. In most cases they were interned and later on transferred to Czech-German border region to work in agriculture or blue-collar jobs. The two Greek Catholic bishops were convicted of seditious activities and sentenced to prison for a long-lasting period.
Along with the Greek Catholic Church liquidation, monasteries and holy orders were closed down well. This came as the response to their significance within the Catholic Church and influence they had on the society.
At the break of March and April 1950, in an artificially constructed lawsuit against monastery and holy order representatives, monasteries were “revealed” as centers of sedition, where espionage is being organized, weapons collected and provocations are being prepared. Action K took place in the night from April 12 to 13, 1950. Security forces seized majority of monasteries and the monks were concentrated into detention camps. Even though massive security forces were put to operation, several sharp crashes appeared. Similar intervention against women’s holy orders followed as a part of Action R. Interned nuns and monks were first re-educated, afterwards transferred to work in factory productions, nuns especially to Czech border region to work in textile industry.
After 1950, theological studies were available only at the Constantine-Methodius Theological Faculty in Bratislava and at Orthodox Theological Faculty in Prešov. All the other theological institutes were closed down. State took strict actions against “reaction” priests, who were often imprisoned without a lawsuit or sentenced to military service to carry out hard labor in subsidiary technical battalions of army forces.
At the beginning of the fifties, hundreds of clergy were imprisoned or interned. Bishops were isolated and interned in the bishops’ ministries or imprisoned. As for the Catholic Church a parallel church structure began to flourish in illegality. It overtook some functions of official Church. State, on the other hand, organized “Catholic clergy peace movement”, in which it strived for establishing connections among priests who were willing to cooperate with state power. Doing so, state could differentiate Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia. Though, the membership ended up very low and the movement did not have significant influence on the society. Evangelical churches, in this period, did not come with a strong resist against state; Calvin Church found importance in the national problem and not the problem of loyalty towards the regime. Church press was a subject to state control to such extent that in fact it did not have religious character any longer.
Before 1968, the first symptoms of change in church-political situation appeared. It was mainly under the influence of Marxist-Christian dialogue that was popular especially with French and Italian communists. The dialogue with Christians was found one of the specific instruments of ideological battle for suppression of religious way of thinking with believers. Sporadically, requests to recompense the wrongdoing to believers and churches appeared. The Prague Spring in 1968, when Alexander Dubcek became the first secretary of Communist Party, started off certain democratization processes along with new state church policy. The censorship of church press was eased, “cadre ceiling for believers” for the religious was cancelled and communication between Catholic ordinaries and the Holy See was allowed. The government passed a decree that approved the activity of Greek Catholic Church. Limits for accepting candidates for priesthood to theological faculties were cancelled. The Supreme Court was asked to go through the processes with Catholic hierarchy, representatives of monasteries and the like. Many officials and members of Communist Party reproached such attitude against Party leadership. Though, party bodies planned changes of a larger extent within the church policy after the then being prepared change of legal norms from 1949. These processes were much more striking in the Czech Republic than in Slovakia. The dialogue between the Marxists and Christians in Slovakia did not take place at all. Occupation of Czechoslovakia by armies of five Warsaw Pact states in 1969 put on the brake to the state democratization processes. A process of the so-called normalization was started. Representatives of hard line replaced pro-reform Party and state officials. They rated the situation as exclusion of churches from state control. A regress in church-political situation and a return to state-church relations from before the 1968 followed. A new, state-collaboration movement of Catholic clergy – Pacem in terries, started to be formed. Through this, Communist Party wanted to penetrate into the inside of the Church and influence its activities according to Party’s interests. State-church relations were reduced to church-political control and suppression of any church activities and public religious manifests.
The time-consuming negotiations between Czechoslovakia and the Holy See were an exception. They negotiated about filling the vacant bishop stools, about theology faculties and reorganization of the diocese boundaries so they do not overreach the state boundaries. Pope Paul VI used the Praescriptorum Sacrosancti constitution from December 30, 1977 to create Slovak church province with the seat in Trnava. The pressure of the Holy See as well as international-political pressure to realize Helsinki commitments in Czechoslovakia got consequently stronger after Karol Wojtyla’s accession to pope stool. Church activity was increasing; believers showed their discontent with the steps of state power towards churches and religion and demanded real religious freedom. Religious pilgrimages were becoming the events of revolt; the number of lay religious activists was growing. On March 25, 1988, a manifestation that entered the history as “candle manifestation” took place in Bratislava. Some thousand people from the whole republic found courage to gather at the Hviezdoslav Square. Carrying candles in their hands they demonstrated their support of requests to defend religious and human rights. After the crowd did not respond to the call of dismiss, a strong intervention of security forces followed. It was one of the last shake of power before its eventual downfall. In spite of the fact that especially outer events influenced the downfall of the regime, we cannot forget to mention even the activities of churches and Catholic dissent. The latest mentioned was one of the strongest bodies representing the communist regime resistance in Slovakia.

D 3 October 2012    AMichaela Moravcikova

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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