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KOVÁČ, MEČIAR PLAY TO CLERGY'S SYMPATHY AS CRUX IN LONG-RUNNING FEUD

No one's a saint in search for church's soul

With the country's president and the prime minister locked in perpetual confrontation, Slovakia's Catholic clergy is having trouble walking a fine line between the two political rivals and reflecting consensus towards each.
"What is so unfortunate is that when I don't agree with one side, I am automatically considered [to be that side's] enemy," lamented Štefan Herényi, a Jesuit priest at Bratislava's Blumenthal Church. "This is the diagnosis of our nation." But Herényi said that the church must not forget its strength as a moral arbiter. "By nature, politics are confrontational; insensivity is therefore a part of this dialogue," he said. "To that extent, the church cannot really be politically impartial on issues that concern the church and state. However, I think that the church should avoid leaning toward either side. The church should act upon the strength of its moral position in dealing with both sides of any political opposition.


President Michal Kováč, like his rival Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar, has sought to ingratiate himself to Slovakia's Catholic Church with statements that have made some church leaders wary of what his true objectives are.
Peter Brenkus

With the country's president and the prime minister locked in perpetual confrontation, Slovakia's Catholic clergy is having trouble walking a fine line between the two political rivals and reflecting consensus towards each.

"What is so unfortunate is that when I don't agree with one side, I am automatically considered [to be that side's] enemy," lamented Štefan Herényi, a Jesuit priest at Bratislava's Blumenthal Church. "This is the diagnosis of our nation." But Herényi said that the church must not forget its strength as a moral arbiter.

"By nature, politics are confrontational; insensivity is therefore a part of this dialogue," he said. "To that extent, the church cannot really be politically impartial on issues that concern the church and state. However, I think that the church should avoid leaning toward either side. The church should act upon the strength of its moral position in dealing with both sides of any political opposition.

Pavol Flajžík, a Catholic priest and an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar's governing coalition said it's the church's obligation to speak out. "If the government restricts a citizen's rights, the church is obliged to speak out on that person's behalf," said Flajžík, who last year spoke at the funeral of Robert Remiáš, a confidant of a self-proclaimed Slovak Intelligence Service (SIS) officer who said he participated in the kidnapping of President Michal Kováč's son. Remiáš died when his car exploded on April 28, 1996.

Two political titans

Mečiar has tried for the past two years to better relations with the church, offering a state-financed Catholic university, and vowing to build churches and develop other ventures with the church. In that same time, Kováč, his hated rival, has followed a more low-key but not less public route to the same objective by appearing often in the public eye with Bishop Ján Sokol, Cardinal Ján Chryzostom Korec and other prominent Slovak Catholic Church representatives. In November, Kováč reminded Slovaks of his devout Catholicism and personal regard for Pope John Paul II in an open letter congratulating the Pope on the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a priest.

Asked what he thinks of Mečiar's campaign to better the condition of the first estate, Flajžík, a 40-year-old preacher from the west Slovak town of Lozorno, said: "The government comes from the people and serves their interests; furthermore, every one of us pays taxes. If [Mečiar] is motivated by his Christian feelings, which I doubt, fine. But it is more like the story of the Trojan Horse; to accept his offers would be like admitting the Trojan Horse into the church." Herényi rejected the analogy. "It's a very simplistic formulation," he said. "If they offer good things to the church, why not accept?"

Herényi added that the government is a political animal and should be dealt with as such. "At the moment, it is seen that [Mečiar] wants to tighten his political influence over the church," he said. "But this is quite natural, as it has been since the time of [the first Christian Roman Emperor] Constantine. He understood that Chrsitianity was a social force - which is why he wanted to have it on his side, to establish his empire on it. Again, he was primarily a politician."

The Three Kings

One example in particular points out how these two politicians, who once were in the same party but later split after Kováč's address to parliament in March 1994 spurred the fall of Mečiar's second administration, almost relish seeing the other fail in forging stronger ties with the clergy.

"The offices of the church have the feeling that the government is trying to divide the church from its followers, and that it is seeking to rule the church," Kováč said at a dinner held for journalists in Bratislava on January 14. "There have even been efforts to discredit some church representatives." By way of example, Kováč brought up the subject of a two-year-old legal dispute over the sale by Bishop Rudolf Baláž, the head of the Slovak Bishops' Conference, of a 300-year-old religious painting.

According to Zuzana Kollárová, a Slovak journalist from Práca daily who has followed the case, Baláž was approached by a Swiss art collector named Thomas Grabner offering $200,000 for a painting called "The Three Kings' bowing" (Klaňanie sa Troch Kráľov) from the bishop's diocese of Banská Bystrica.

"The church had the right to sell this painting," Kováč said, "but the police seized the person who bought it and confiscated the money, and the government accused the church of selling [the painting] illegally."

"The subsequent legal proceeding established that the SIS was behind the whole matter," the country's president continued. "It has also been established that the 'Swiss citizen' who purchased the painting had a false passport. However, the legal authorities have ruled that the painting's sale was legal. I mention this incident because it is symbolic of the bad relationship between the church and state."

Asked if the regional court had established SIS involvement in the case, Kollárová said that it had not, but that strong circumstantial evidence had emerged during the investigation.

"Grabner was arrested when the police found the painting in his car," said Kollárová, adding that Grabner, whom police released shortly after his arrest, thereafter 'disappeared'. "What's more, his passport was later found to have false data."

Kollárová said that Baláž "wanted to sell the painting to get money to build a new church," but agreed with Kováč that the bishop had been legally entitled to do so. "Grabner offered Baláž $200,000 for the painting, although its value is appraised at only two million Sk," Kollárová said. "The government wanted to make it look as if Baláž had used the rest to line his pockets."

Sour taste

Whether the government had any role in the case or not, the end result is that it left a sour taste in the clergy's mouth. "My personal opinion is that this entire case is artificial and sad," said Alojz Tkáč, Archbishop of Košice. "It has damaged relations between the church and state, and even the interests of Slovakia abroad."

"The whole case is not pleasant from either side," Herényi added. "[The church] reached a point where it shouldn't have been, and from the government's side it looked ugly for the church to have been there."

Asked what he would have done if he were Baláž, Herényi said: "I would never go that way. I would sell the painting only if I knew exactly what it was worth, and what the opinion of my brothers in the church was about the transaction. I would make sure that all the conditions were clear-especially after this experience."

Pleading innocent

While Kováč took the opportunity to take a jab at Mečiar's government in the Three Kings case, his office denies that the president's flirtation with Catholic leaders reflects a political aim.

"As a faithful Catholic, the president respects the spiritual and moral integrity of the Catholic Church and of other churches legally operating in Slovakia," said the president's office domestic department director, Milan Zemko, while denying that the Slovak head of state had intensified his contact with church leaders in the last two years. "In this matter, the president's expression of favoritism towards any church has no political character."

But Zemko could not help making an indirect jab at the other executive branch. "We must bear in mind that church representatives are educated people and are open-minded in social and political matters as well as religious concerns," Zemko said. "They make decisions based on their knowledge and conscience, and do not need encouragement from outside."

Special reporting by Martina Skočková

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