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CATHOLIC OFFICIALS SUSPECT NATIONWIDE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE CHURCH

Controversy sets tone for papal visit

SEVERAL days ahead of the papal visit to Slovakia, Church officials are concerned about what they have dubbed anti-religious moods within the society, fuelled by discussions surrounding the costs of Pope John Paul II's visit.
Archbishop Ján Sokol has said that there is a countrywide conspiracy against the Catholic Church, while Cardinal Ján Chrizostom Korec called the ongoing debate "pitiful and uncivilized".

SEVERAL days ahead of the papal visit to Slovakia, Church officials are concerned about what they have dubbed anti-religious moods within the society, fuelled by discussions surrounding the costs of Pope John Paul II's visit.

Archbishop Ján Sokol has said that there is a countrywide conspiracy against the Catholic Church, while Cardinal Ján Chrizostom Korec called the ongoing debate "pitiful and uncivilized".

Over the past month the Slovak media have written numerous stories questioning the funds the state has released to cover the preparation for the Pope's visit, describing it as one of the most lavish of all the visits that a leader has paid to the country.

Although the Pope has already visited Slovakia twice since the fall of communism in 1989, never has he been accompanied by so much controversy. John Paul's third visit to the country will take place between September 11 and 14.

The state will contribute Sk80 million (€1.9 million) to the papal visit.

However, towns, churches, and other state organisations involved in the visit originally had requested more than Sk270 million (€6.4 million) to cover the four-day tour.

The head of the ruling Christian Democratic Movement's (KDH) parliamentary caucus, Pavol Minárik, told The Slovak Spectator that no previous official visit has been surrounded by such a massive debate about its costs.

Unlike Sokol, Minárik does not think that a conspiracy against the Catholic Church is taking place in Slovakia, but nonetheless, he said he finds the Church officials' concerns justified.

"Conspiracy, I think, is perhaps too strong a word. But I think those Church officials' opinions are justified because the atmosphere here is really starting to be rather unpleasant," Minárik said.

"We have seen a remarkable insistence upon informing the public about the financial aspects of the Pope's visit, which is something that has not been present here with any previous official state visit," he said.

Throughout the debate over the costs, many media have pointed out that in the neighbouring Czech Republic, the country's foreign affairs ministry spent only 1.5 million Czech crowns (€46,400) during the Pope's visit to the state a few years ago.

But it was not only media comments on the costs for the Pope's visit that has triggered Archbishop Sokol's alarm. He said he perceives antagonism towards the Pope within Slovak society, and that a "conspiracy" was aimed at the elimination of religion here.

Sociologists have said the debate signals a growing conflict between the conservative and liberal parts of Slovak society.

Over the past year the public has been exposed to several ongoing debates involving the Catholic Church, including fights within the ruling coalition over a revision to the country's abortion law, Slovakia's treaties with the Vatican on Catholic education, and the KDH-tailored conscientious objectors treaty to secure Slovak Catholics the right to refuse work that puts them in conflict with their faith and conscience.

Sociologist Pavol Haulík told the SME daily that these debates might be a source of irritation for the Slovak public.

KDH's Minárik also suspects that the largely critical or negative information spread in relation to the papal visit was purposely presented to the public, to put the Catholic Church under pressure.

"I think the atmosphere ahead of the visit should instead be of a two-fold nature. While for Catholics this visit has a deep spiritual value, those who are not members of the Catholic Church should perhaps see this as a visit to our country by a man who is one of the biggest figures of the 20th century and a representative of the billions of Catholics around the world."

However, according to the opposition Smer party, a debate about state money flowing into Catholic pockets is not pointless. Supported by the Slovak Communist Party, Smer leader Robert Fico has suggested several times that the state should seriously consider cutting the churches out of the state budget.

In its September 3 issue, the daily Pravda reported that the churches are receiving far more money from the state than they admit. "Along with annual payments reaching Sk600 million (€14.3 million) to cover the salaries of priests and the offices of bishops, the churches are also getting money from the prime minister's special fund," the daily Pravda writes. It also claims that last year it was half of the PM's Sk22 million (€524,000) budget.

The Catholic Church has a strong position in Slovakia, where 83 percent of the population believes in God. Of that group, nearly 70 percent say they are Catholic, according to the 2001 national census.

A one-time leftist democrat, Fico, in a statement for news wire SITA, insisted that despite its high number of Catholics, Slovakia is not a Catholic country. He suggested that the KDH has been trying to implant a religious view, specifically the view of the Catholic Church, into all spheres of society.

Slovak President Rudolf Schuster dubbed the media discussion on the costs of the visit inappropriate, with his spokesman, Jan Fule, dubbing it impolite. "When any of us invite someone to our home, we would not in the first place publish how much it cost, neither before nor after the visit," Fule said.

The Pope will be serving masses in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, and Rožnava, while also making a stop in Trnava. In Bratislava, the Pope will beatify Slovak bishop Vasil Hopka and Sister Zdenka Šelingová, both victims of the Communist regime.

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