President Rudolf Schuster, a former high-ranking communist in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia, is preparing to lead an unlikely mission: a pilgrimage to visit Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. The event, scheduled for February 15, coincides with the Catholic Church's year 2000 'Big Jubilee', which will commemorate those who have consecrated their lives to serving Jesus.
Schuster will be accompanied to Rome by Slovak Catholic and non-Catholic church officials, and by politicians from the country's parliamentary parties. He will leave behind many who wonder at the irony of an ex-communist heading a religious mission made up of politicians.
"Such appeals and trips are just gestures that don't help the country at all," said Ľuboš Kubín, a political scientist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. "Politicians as well as the president have realized that public opinion can be manipulated. Through activities like this they get positive feedback from our public. And to achieve this, any means is acceptable."
According to a poll conducted in January 1999 by the Bratislava-based think tank Institute of Public Affairs (IVO), 57% of citizens trusted the church absolutely or somewhat last year. Several government officials said it was cynical of politicians to join what should be a mission of religious faith
"It [the pilgrimage] has nothing to do with the agendas of political parties. They are not institutions of faith, but of political views and civil society," said František Šebej, chairman of the parliamentary Committee for European Integration. Šebej told the SITA news agency on January 21 that the president's plan was an aberration from the principles of parliamentary democracy.
But Schuster said the journey should help to lessen political divisions in the country, and called it "a pilgrimage of national reconciliation." According to the estimates of the president's office, some 4,000 people will join Slovakia's head of state on the pilgrimage.
"We still do not know if Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda and Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš will join the president," said presidential office spokeswoman Soňa Záňová. Around 70 of the pilgrims, including Schuster's entourage and various politicians, will be flown to Rome at taxpayer expense.
The only party boss to have confirmed participation is Anna Malíková of the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS). She told media that she would welcome other chairs on the pilgrimage, but that "I am convinced that for some of them not even a pilgrimage will help." Malíková said that the SNS delegation would be travelling to the Vatican in their own bus.
Other parties have decided to send officials as well. The Party of Civil Understanding, which Schuster founded in 1998, nominated MP Štefan Šlachta and Privatisation Minister Mária Machová. Šlachta told The Slovak Spectator that "visiting the Vatican is a gesture that should be reflected in our culture, morale, and consciousness." In response to Malíková's taunt, he said that it was wrong "to misuse the occasion for winning political capital."
The ruling Slovak Democratic Coalition party has nominated two MP's to make the journey, while the Hungarian Coalition Party is sending deputies László Hóka and Klára Sárkozyová to see the Holy Father. The biggest opposition party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, has delegated Augustín Marián Húska.
František Rábek, an assistant bishop from the Nitra region diocese who is the Catholic community's main organizer for the pilgrimage, refused to comment on what the Catholic Church thought of the political aspect of the mission. "But it's not realistic to assume that [political] reconciliation will come automatically just because we visit the Pope," said Rábek. " Of course, we hope that the pilgrimage contributes to social and political peace in Slovakia, but we cannot expect that everything will change just like that."