Church and State Relations in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia

Chapter 11
Church and State Relations in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia

Antonello De Oto

The Czech Republic and Slovakia: A ‘Bridge’ between East and West

In lands which border different worlds, such as today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia, the influence of more cohesive and numerically more important neighbours such as the Germanic and Magyar peoples has played a vital political, cultural and social role.1 The colonization of these territories by the Slavs (at least since the sixth century), who formed tribes mainly ‘from their original habitat beyond the Carpathian mountains’2 was an act of stabilization and territorial control in Central Europe, the establishment of a natural crossroads for trade between north and south and the demographic basis for the emergence of the very first organized national entity in the heart of medieval Europe: Great Moravia (833–907).

The birth of Great Moravia as a first successful attempt at socio-political cohesion of the Slav people was a key event, not only from the administrative point of view. In a geographical area naturally destined to be in touch with both Byzantium and Rome, an entity took shape which gained strength politically thanks to Prince Rastislav who appears, however, to have been more favourably inclined towards Byzantium, despite his contacts with the Roman Curia.

The Christianization of the Slovakian territories predates the evangelization by Cyril and Methodius in the first half of the ninth century. The impact on these lands of the civilization of the Roman Empire and, according to some scholars, the first contacts with Christianity, should not be underestimated: authoritative historians do indeed speak of ‘the Roman influence which lasted even after the fall of the Empire’.3

Over the centuries, these areas were affected by continual transfers of power and sovereignty, while two undeniable characteristics emerged which would thence determine their peculiar destiny: that of being a meeting point between East and West (suffice it to think of the very meaning of the name Praze (Praga), threshold, as if to underline this destiny) as well as the ability, at the same time, to remain an integral part, indeed the heart, of the Slavic countries of Central Europe, in spite of the strong influences of powerful neighbours who took turns to dominate the political space.

From the start, the Bohemian and Moravian peoples were engaged in an underground struggle for the survival of their own way of life, of the ‘Slavic limetree’, first resisting complete Westernization, as illustrated by the question of the liturgy of the Bohemian ecclesiastical community, and then the attraction of the Russian or Russian-speaking sphere of influence. This attitude of active resistance, though tempered by the typical traits of ‘švejkism’,4 becomes evident in the second communist period, after the end of the Gottwald era, when the campaign conducted at various levels by the Czech people to free themselves of Moscow’s yoke reached its climax in 1968.5

Today this strip of land – that was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, later of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, then (against its will) a province of the German Reich and a satellite of the USSR – is finally part of the European project, although in fact – and who knows for how long – its independence is purely political and not economic, since it is part of a territory firmly driven by the German economy.

To sum up, we can say that the historical-political macro-context seems to change continuously but the Bohemian heart remains intact, attached to its own traditional characteristics within an open context, which in fact has acted for centuries as a permanent bridge between two shores, East and West, just as the Charles Bridge has dominated the waters of the Vltava river for centuries, uniting the people of Prague and their neighbourhoods, so close yet so diverse.6

Due to the critical international economic situation, there have been numerous political scandals in recent years which have shaken the trust of the Czech people in the political class, resulting in frequent crises and fragile government coalitions.7 This has happened even though the Czech democracy is now considered to be stable, and in spite of an undeniable period of economic growth which characterized the years immediately following the end of communism until 2004, accounting for the so-called Czech miracle.8 Dissatisfaction has been steadily increasing in some parts of the population. In fact, many citizens have been demonstrating this lack of trust, and even a downright aversion to democratic processes, by increasing participation in extremist groups, including neo-Nazi organizations such as the Workers’ Party led by Tomás Vandas or the National Party led by Petra Edelmannova, to the point even of forming a paramilitary force which aims to solve the ‘gypsy question’9 violently.

State and Churches in the Czech Republic: A Complex Relation

In the Czech Republic the legislative realignment after the ‘velvet revolution’ and in general the system of relations between the State and the Churches is still incomplete.

Despite the often difficult problems to be solved, the fundamental rights and particularly free expression of thought, conscience and religious confession are guaranteed in practice, not just in art. 15 of the Constitutional Law n. 2/1993 Sb.10 The enforcement of the 3/2002 law on religious freedom11 required the intervention of the Czech Constitutional Court to iron out anomalies, abolishing no less than four articles of the law.12 Furthermore, it should be noted that the relations with the partially new Islamic component of the Czech society, though animated by a spirit of collaboration rather than by reciprocal diffidence, are characterized by the great caution of the Czech State. This attitude was expressed, for example, with the refusal to concede so-called ‘special rights’ (zvlàštnì pràva) to the Muslim Community Centre, and the preference for a registration with the Ministry of Culture (which is only the first step of the process of State recognition). The lack of concession of so-called ‘special rights’ to the Muslim Community Centre makes it impossible for the imam to celebrate marriages with civil effects, to teach the Qur’ān in State schools and to provide spiritual support as a chaplain in the armed forces. Above all, it means that imams are ineligible for State funding.13 According to the 2002 law, it would have been legally possible to concede ‘special rights’ to Muslims: section 27, para. 8 of the law expressly provides for the possibility for religious associations which represent ‘universal religious denominations with longstanding traditions’ to proceed directly to the second step of recognition. But as far as Islam is concerned, a politics of ‘one step at a time’ was preferred.

Law n. 3/2002 Sb. introduced a new system of recognizing Churches or religious associations that had not yet been registered. On the one hand this was aimed at facilitating the entry into the system of a number of small religious organizations; on the other hand it introduced a double level of protection and economic-legal opportunities for Churches within the Czech State.

One positive aspect was the establishment of a lower number of members necessary for the Church or religious association to be recognized. The 10,000-members stipulation of the 1991 legislation was lowered by the Law n. 3/2002 to 300 adult citizens of the Czech Republic or foreigners with unlimited residence in the country. The price paid for this considerable facilitation was the differentiation of the legal status of these ‘new’ Churches or religious associations from those previously recognized by the State. Thus, the Czech State effectively expressed its caution towards new Churches and religious associations, and its worries concerning the activities of their followers,14 or the entry into the country of uncontrollable streams of money or financial interests capable of threatening the very foundation of the democratic State and the rights of its citizens. In spite of these difficulties and ambiguous points, since Law n. 3/2002 has been in force nine new religious organizations have been recognized.

The first to be registered according to the new criteria were the Christian Communities (Křest’anská společenství)15 which, in spite of their reservations about the text of the new law on religious freedom, considered favourably the fact of being able to practice their activities as a registered Church, whereas they had previously been obliged to operate as single, scattered associations which could not use the unified denomination of Church.16

Another organization officially recognized in this period was the Community of Christians in the Czech Republic (Obec křest’anů v České republice).17 In spite of the generic denomination of Christians, it seems to be constituted by followers of anthroposophy. Another two recognized religious organizations by the State are the Hare Krishna movement (Mezinárodní společnost pro vědomí Krišny, hnutí Haré Krišna) and the Czech Hindu Religious Association (Česká hinduistická náboženská společnost).18

In 2004, two years after the above-cited first-level recognition, Muslims also became recognized subjects in 2004 with the so-called Central of Muslim Communities, with the aforementioned problems.19 Four more subjects were then recognized, namely the Russian Orthodox Church, not subject to the ordinary jurisdiction of the national Orthodox Church (that is to say that of the Czech countries and of Slovakia);20 the Buddhismus Diamantové cesty,21 whose rituals are related to the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism;22 the movement Vishwa Nirmala Dharma (Višva Nirmala Dharma),23 inspired by Hinduism and represented by the ‘Divine Mother’ Shri Matadzhi Nirmala Devi;24 and the Church of Living God, of Christian inspiration typical of the United States (Církev živého Boha – the Church of Living God).25

The relationship with the Catholic Church is still complicated. Apart from the historical problems of the relationship between Church and State in Bohemia and Moravia, the Parliament has still to ratify the Concordat26 and the question of the restitution of ecclesiastical property confiscated from the Church of Rome during half a century of communism has not yet been clearly and definitively resolved. A large part of this problem consists of the legal ‘battle’ for the restitution of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague to the Catholic Church.27 Last but not least, there is the question of financing of religious confessions,28

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