Zen Buddhist Peter Košút (above), says that some Slovaks are intolerant of others because of their strong Catholic upbringing.
photo: Courtesy Peter Košút
"After the revolution we were soul-hungry, we were searching for spirituality," she said. "Many different religions came [to Czechoslovakia] and especially the younger people were very open to their messages."
In 1990, Rajniaková came into contact with members of the Bahá'í faith and, attracted to their belief in 'progressive revelations' and their non-institutional structure, she became a member. "It's not like a church, there's no clergy, no one to say whether you're doing enough," she said. "It's an individual search for truth."
This desire to search for truth, and the general respect Slovaks still show to the tenets of different religions, was rekindled after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, in the moral and ethical vacuum left by the fall of communism. It created an atmosphere of religious tolerance that attracted members of foreign religious groups to Slovakia, and even now, in a country where 65% of citizens profess the Roman Catholic faith, the missionaries of these 'minority religions' say they are received warmly and openly by the nation's citizenry.
"Slovaks are generally accepting of different religions," said sociologist Ján Bunčák of Bratislava's Comenius University. "When a religion attracts too much support, Slovaks become suspicious of it because they connect strong religious groups with abuses of power in the past. As a result, they are unusually open to most religions, and I don't see any religious tension in Slovakia."
The experiences of most minority religious groups seem to bear out this image of Slovakia as a religious utopia. Vahid and Fahimeh Nourani, Bratislava residents who claim the Bahá'í faith, were living in Wisconsin four years ago when they decided to travel with their two children to a foreign country in need of a stronger Bahá'í presence (there are currently around 200 Bahá'í in Slovakia). After considering locations such as St. Lucia, Zambia and Alaska, they settled on Slovakia and now say that their decision was the right one.
"Slovaks are very spiritual and very open," Fahimeh said, sitting next to her husband in their home in the Bratislava suburb of Ružinov. "I teach English and my students often ask why I came to Slovakia. When I tell them, they are very receptive. I haven't yet met anyone who wasn't receptive to the ideals of the faith."
Vahid agreed that the people were very "warm and caring", but added that the initial post-revolution yearning for religion which Rajniaková spoke of had fallen off with time. "The hunger has subsided since the fall of communism," he said. "I've heard stories of how 500,000 people would come to hear a missionary speak, but that has subsided."
Paul Hanson, an American Lutheran who teaches religion in Bratislava and leads English-language services at Malý kostol (Little Church) for a Bratislava expat congregation of between 75 and 100, said that he and his fellow Lutherans had also been well recieved.
He explained there were two reasons behind this: the group's limited social contacts and its humble approach. "It's partly because we mostly only see other Lutherans. But we're also here by invitation, which is virtually the only way the American Lutheran church does foreign 'missions'. By intention, we are in a servent's position instead of being domineering, because we want to recognise the already existing structures."
But while Slovaks have on the whole been praised for their openness, some local leaders said that lingering barriers to total acceptance remained. Peter Košút, a practicing Zen Buddhist in Bratislava (although all forms of Buddhism are considered a collective religion by the Slovak government, Zen Buddhism emphasises meditation and intuition and is not a religion) agreed that the country's predominantly Catholic citizenry was open to different philosophies, but added that some still rejected different faiths.
"Catholics in Slovakia are open to accept Zen Buddhism because they know it's independent of any religion," he said. "But there are some close-minded religious people who are opposed to different groups because the traditions of Catholicism, [a religion] which has been here for many years, prevent them from accepting new approaches."
Rajniaková agreed, saying that the older generations in particular cast doubt on non-Catholic belief systems. "Most of them are very cautious, they think: 'What are you coming here to tell us about? We have our faith, we've already sorted it all out,'" she said. "When I joined the Bahá'í, my parents thought it was like a cult, that I would be sent to hell. It's easier to reject without thinking than to try to learn."
Despite occasional brushes with close-mindedness, however, minority religious leaders insisted that their experiences with Slovaks have been overwhelmingly positive. When asked if he could think of any instance when he was rejected for his faith, Vahid chuckled and looked to his wife, asking with a look if she too remembered the time.
Explaining that every Tuesday evening their home became a meeting place for members of the Bahá'í faith (or non-members interested in information on the belief), Vahid said that they once had a Buddhist visitor who took exception to what she perceived was the Bahá'í's lack of spirituality.
"During the meeting, she said that we don't meditate and we don't burn incense," he remembered. "I said, maybe we're not spiritual in your sense of the word... It was a bit funny. But at the next meeting people [other Bahá'í] apologised [to their hosts for the rudeness of the buddhist] and brought chocolate for the kids."
That one difference in opinion aside, Vahid and Fahimeh reiterated their fondness for Slovaks and said that although their stay in the country would not be permanent, they were not yet ready to move on.
"My personal belief is that I should look for signs," said Vahid. "If I no longer have a positive effect on the community, I start to plan for a move."
His wife nodded in agreement. "We'll stay until we're no longer needed," she said. "We'll stay until we have fulfilled our purpose."
2. Oct 2000 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri