COMMUNISTS in the Slovak parliament have suggested that the state should revise its commitment to funding the country's registered Christian denominations, but say they will not make a legislative proposal to achieve that change in the foreseeable future.
The Slovak government annually contributes hundreds of millions of crowns to maintain 12 denominations out of a total of 16 that are active in the state, money that is largely used to cover the wages of priests and the operational costs of the churches' regional branches.
Representatives of the Slovak Communist Party (KSS) said recently that it was time for the state to sever its ties with the church, arguing that the taxes of citizens who do not practise any religion are being put into institutions with which they have no connection at all.
KSS chairman Jozef Ševc said that with nearly Sk700 million (€17.5 million) allotted to Slovakia's churches each year - including Catholics, Protestants, Greek Catholics, and orthodox Catholics - the churches were gaining an unfair advantage over other groups in society that do not profit from state funds.
"The reason for the separation of state and church is simple. We are living in a pluralistic and democratic society, where all groups and individuals should exist on an equal footing and work with the power of their arguments rather than with state funding.
"If atheists, for example, as well as other groups in Slovakia, do not have financial backing from the state to spread their ideas, why should the church be an exception," Ševc told The Slovak Spectator on April 28.
Despite their belief that the state's contribution to the churches is not sustainable, the KSS chairman said his party had no plans to initiate greater public discussion on the subject, nor to propose a legislative change in parliament in the near future.
"In the short term we are not considering proposing the separation in parliament. At the moment there are more pressing issues that we need to address, mainly of a social and economic character.
"But it is certain that one day life itself will bring the issue of separation of state and church onto the agenda," Ševc said.
In the past only a few politicians - including the leader of the opposition party Smer, Robert Fico - talked about the separation of church and state.
Today Fico is saying, cautiously, that the existing arrangement of state funding for churches may not be acceptable in the long term. He adds, however, that prior to any further discussion on the matter, a detailed analysis of individual churches' property is needed, to see whether it is necessary to provide churches with taxpayers' money or not.
Following the fall of communism in 1989, new democracies like Slovakia returned property seized by the communists to its original owners. These owners included the church, which reclaimed a number of historical buildings and land.
It is not known to what extent the churches are able to make any money from that property.
Some church officials say that the taxpayers' money currently invested into their communities is not wasted, and that everyone in society, not just religious people, profits from their activities.
Marián Gavenda, spokesperson for the Conference of Slovak Bishops (KBS), said: "The church not only gives people a chance to practise their faith. It also helps maintain and improve the cultural levels of the nation by organising concerts and other such events.
"It also does a lot in terms of charity and assistance to physically or mentally disabled persons. The money put into the church is certainly well invested. The church contributes to the public good of the state."
The KSS leader, however, maintains that Catholic Church is not the only institution that does charity work.
"There are many groups that do charity work - entities that help, for example, drug addicts and disabled people - not just the church. All of them should have equal conditions."
The Catholic Church is the strongest religious denomination in Slovakia. In the 2001 national census, nearly 70 percent Slovaks said they were Catholic.
Reflecting that religious commitment, a number of Slovak political parties include the word Christian in their names, and others state that Christianity is one of their parties' central tenets.
Only one out of the four ruling parties is liberal, the New Citizen's Alliance (ANO). Its deputy chairman, Ľubomír Lintner, recently admitted that ANO had a "different view" of the separation of church and state to that of their ruling colleagues, who in the past have rejected such proposals.
Lintner also said, however, that he thought it would not be advisable to open up the issue of the separation of church and state on a political level.
According to ruling Christian Democrat (KDH) politician Július Brocka, discussion on such a split is ungrounded because of the fact that two years ago Slovakia signed a general bilateral treaty with the Vatican pledging to create good conditions for the working of the Catholic Church in Slovakia.
A sub-treaty with the Holy See setting out the system of state financing of the Catholic Church is also being prepared.
Gavenda said that the modern communists' approach towards the church reminded him of the oppressive communist regime that prosecuted the faithful.
"I have not yet heard how modern communists define themselves or in what terms they are different than those [communists] of the 1950s. Class hatred and the spread of atheism are the basis of communist ideology."
5. May 2003 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová