František Krajňák preaches to packed houses, but his work outside the church's stone walls may have a wider impact on his flock. It is also another facet of minority life in Slovakia which stands to be affected by the 2001 census.
Krajňák is not only a Greek Orthodox priest, he is a proud member of Slovakia's Rusyn minority. In his parish in the small north-western Slovak city of Medzilaborce - the largest city in Slovakia with a Rusyn majority population - Krajňák is fighting to preserve churches throughout regions with Rusyn populations from what he describes as 'Slovakization'. The battle to keep Ruysn culture from being swallowed by Slovak culture is being lost on many fronts, but Krajňák says this final battlefield is holy ground.
"Rusyns lead very spiritual lives. We haven't complained much about Slovakization in schools and in public administration," says Krajňák. "But religion is a different story."
According to him, Rusyns get their news and entertainment in Slovak, study in Slovak, and conduct public affairs in Slovak - a situation he admits is natural for a national minority. He even concedes that most Rusyns welcomed the introduction of Slovak schools. But he is adamantly opposed to the penentration of Slovak into church life in Rusyn villages.
As determined as he is, Krajňák hasn't had much leverage over the past ten years because of underreporting by Rusyns during the 1991 census. Only 17,000 claimed Rusyn nationality, although 50,000 said that it was their mother tongue. Some estimates put the number of Rusyns in Slovakia as high as 100,000.
According to Rusyn leaders, the problem with the 1991 census was largely psychological. After 40 years of liquidation under communist rule, during which Rusyns were labelled Ukrainians and forced to study in Ukrainian schools, many Rusyns were confused about their identity.
"It is schizophrenia when 33,000 people say their mother tongue is Rusyn but their nationality is something else. It doesn't make any sense. It is the result of almost a half century of pressure," says Krajňák.
Government leaders say that they have supported the efforts of Rusyn leaders to revive their nationality, but that the census is down to individuals. "Every person makes the choice of what nationality they are," said Pál Csáky, Deputy Prime Minister for Minority Issues.
"If a person with Rusyn as their mother tongue decides to declare himself Slovak, it is his right."
With so many Rusyns seemingly content to be known as Slovaks, Krajňák has had a hard time making his case that Slovakia needs a Rusyn diocese and Bishop, that mass in Rusyn villages shouldn't be sung in Slovak, that Slovak priests assigned to those villages must learn Rusyn.
There are Rusyn villages, says Krajňák, in which every member declared Slovak nationality during the last census. The village of Roškovce, for example, has 299 Slovaks and one Rusyn according to official counts. In reality, says Krajňák, those numbers are reversed.
"You don't hear anyone speaking Slovak in Roškovce," he says. "But because of official records, when church officials [who make decisions affecting the community] look at the map, they see an entire village of Slovaks."
In addition to confusion over nationality among their community in 1991, leaders claim the census form was unfair. They say there was no box marked 'Rusyn', only a box marked 'Rusyn-Ukraine', a tag most Rusyns were then beginning to shun. According to them, the 17,000 Rusyns recorded by the 1991 census wrote in their nationality.
The Slovak Statistics Office, however, showed The Slovak Spectator a blank 1991 census with 'Rusyn' and 'Ukraine' as separate nationalities. Officials there were unable to produce a form that had been filled in because of laws regarding census anonymity
Marián Horecký, director of the statistics office's department of citizen statistics, was puzzled by the Rusyn claims. "There was a separate category for Rusyns in 1991 as there will be this year. The last time the term 'Rusyn-Ukraine' was used in a census was in 1981."
Csáky had no comment on the 1991 form, but he said that confusion persisted within the Rusyn community concerning nationality, citing a letter he had received from a group urging the return of the term 'Rusyn-Ukraine' in the 2001 census. "There are some issues concerning identity within the Rusyn community, but it is the task of Rusyn intellectuals and not the government to address them."
But for Krajňák there is nothing to address. He believes that after 10 years of democracy and freedom, the results of this year's census will demonstrate unity among Rusyns, and bolster their cause with Slovak church officials.
"I believe that the official number will be more than 30,000. And with a higher official number our demands will carry more weight.
"We [Rusyn priests] have been encouraging our communities to voice their nationality. If they do, if they support their culture, their history and who they are, we will fight for them. If they don't, our community will crumble," he added.
15. Jan 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds