FOURTEEN years after the fall of the communist regime, which suppressed the free exercise of religious faith, Slovakia is widely perceived as a deeply Christian country.
Although the number of Slovaks claiming to be religious and their overall positive attitude towards the church mark one of the greatest differences from their Czech neighbours, Slovakia too is not as religious as it may appear.
The 2001 census carried out by the Slovak Statistics Office revealed that 84 percent of Slovaks have religious faith and identify themselves with the teachings of one of the 15 religious organizations that exist in Slovakia. As many as 3.7 million, or 69 percent of all Slovaks, identified themselves as Roman Catholic.
Some expect that with such support for Catholicism, Slovakia may become a voice for the teachings of the Vatican in an enlarged EU.
"In the near future, your country will become a full member of the European Community. Dearly beloved, bring to the construction of Europe's new identity the contribution of your rich Christian tradition," said Pope John Paul II on September 12, upon his arrival at the Bratislava airport.
The recent visit was the Pontiff's third to Slovakia, and according to some media, also his last trip abroad.
Some Slovak representatives have been trying to do just what the Pope asked. On February 26 the Slovak parliament asked the European Convention, then drafting a new constitutional framework for an enlarged EU, to include a reference to God as a source of the basic values and religious heritage of Europe.
The Convention has since ended its work, and God is not mentioned in the draft constitutional agreement, currently being discussed at an intergovernmental conference of current and future members.
The Slovak government voted on October 2, a day before the start of the intergovernmental conference, that the Slovak delegation would not pursue the mention of God in the EU legislation as one of its priorities, a step opposed mainly by the coalition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
Interestingly, God is not even mentioned in the Slovak constitution. The document's preamble only makes reference to the "spiritual heritage of Cyril and Methodius". Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers from Thessaloniki, were the apostles of the Slavic peoples.
Besides the KDH, two other parties of the four-member ruling coalition have a Christian background. First is Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda's Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), made up in great part of former KDH members, and the other is the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK).
SMK was formed as a union of three smaller ethnic Hungarian parties, the largest of which was the Hungarian Christian Democratic Movement (MKDH), headed by current SMK boss Béla Bugár.
Such a high representation of Christian parties in government is rare in the region. Cabinets in the other countries of the regional Visegrad Four organisation - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - are dominated by left-wing socialist parties.
The liberal New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) is the only party in government without Christian ties. Clashes between ANO and other coalition partners have become characteristic of the coalition, which has just finished its first year in power.
These included disputes over abortion, treaties with the Vatican, and the extent of religious education in state schools.
However, few of the disputes bear a purely ideological undertone, and research shows Slovak voters tend to more directly respond to factors other than religious orientation.
The Statistics Office surveyed Slovak voters to find what in a politician gains their confidence.
The most recent results, released on October 20, show that the preferences of people have remained unchanged over the last three months, with people putting professional skills first, followed by an understanding for the problems of common people in second place, and good character in third.
Experts also say the church is in a better position in Slovakia than in the rest of Europe.
"Generally speaking, Slovaks have a more positive attitude towards religion and churches than most of western Europe," Michaela Moravčíková, director of the state-run Institute for State-Church Relations, told The Slovak Spectator.
The MVO public-opinion research agency found in October that the church is Slovakia's third most trusted institution, following the army and the National Bank of Slovakia.
"It is linked with the recent emancipation process Slovaks went through. At times like these, it is natural for [people to] identify with the majority religion, which becomes a symbol," said Moravčíková.
However, as far as true believers go, church representatives themselves admit that their number is much lower than indicated by the census results, which came as a huge surprise when they were published.
"That figure reflects the number of people who expect something from the church. Naturally, it is not the number of the practicing faithful. We estimate that as far as practicing Catholics are concerned, [believers make up] around 20 percent of the population," said Marián Gavenda, spokesperson of the Slovak Bishop's Conference.
The findings of experts show that the attitudes of many Slovaks conflict with the teachings of the church. A survey carried-out by the MVK research agency for TV Markíza in July revealed that over 69 percent of citizens were in favour of a law allowing abortions until the 24th week of pregnancy in cases of genetically damaged fetuses.
The Christian Democrats heavily opposed the measure at the time.
The divorce rate in Slovakia exceeds 40 percent, despite the high number of self-proclaimed faithful.
"Those are usually very tough personal decisions. The faith [of these people] is usually not enough of a motive to help them overcome that difficult situation," admitted Gavenda.
A look at global research also shows that Slovaks are not exceptionally faithful when compared to other Western nations.
In December 2002 the US-based Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press (PRCPP) published its study of the perception of religion in countries of the world.
It found that 29 percent of Slovaks see religion as very important. Canada, Great Britain, and Italy reached similar results.
Although Slovakia may not be the most religious country, it still stands out as a country of faith when compared to the neighbouring Czech Republic, with which it shares much of its history.
The same PRCPP study concluded that "in the Czech Republic, 71 percent said religion has little or no importance in their lives - more than any other nation surveyed - while barely one in ten said it is very important".
Other results consistently confirm the enormous differences between the two countries. In a document called "What the World Thinks in 2002", PRCPP said that 59 percent of Slovaks believe religious leaders have a good influence on their country, while only 28 percent of Czechs felt the same.
And in a more recent study of global attitudes, PRCPP found that 46 percent of Slovaks think it is necessary to believe in God to be moral, a claim only 13 percent of Slovakia's former compatriots agreed with.
This comes as no surprise, as the 2001 Czech census found that only 32.2 percent of Czechs are faithful, a striking contrast when compared to the 84 percent figure in Slovakia.
"The current situation is a result of historic development," Daniel Herman, spokesman of the Czech Bishops' Conference (ČBK), told The Slovak Spectator.
Herman explained that the forceful restoration of Catholicism starting in the 17th century, the developments after World War I, and decades of communist propaganda are among the most significant reasons for the weak position of the church in the Czech Republic.
"The attitudes we observe have their basis in tradition," said Moravčíková, who stressed that this tradition is very different in the two countries.
According to data published by the Czech Statistics Office, 93.5 percent of Czechs were faithful in 1950, and 43.9 percent in the year 1991.
Churches across Europe have experienced a similar decline in the number of supporters, with Slovakia being a rare exception.
"Many people wonder how it is possible that we have registered a 10 percent increase of faithful over the last decade, at a time when the figures are going down in other countries," said Gavenda.
"I think it is because, here, faith has retained its integrity. In Germany, for example, they question the role of the Pope and they are divided over fundamental issues. Here the church has retained its credibility. Here people don't question fundamental issues," added Gavenda.
The spokesman of Slovak bishops also said that apart from the historic reasons, ideological disputes might also be weakening the position of the Czech church.
"In the Czech Republic they question and discuss a lot of things, and for the non-believers, it's always a bad signal," he said, arguing that outsiders find it hard to believe in an institution that fails to find internal agreement on basic issues.
As for the future of religion in Slovakia, Gavenda says a lot will depend on the role the church will play as globalisation proceeds and disparities between the rich and the poor grow.
"If the church manages to react well to social problems, one of the things that gave the church credibility in the past, it can do well," he said.
The country's accession to the EU in May 2004 may also prove to be of key importance.
"Slovakia's entry into the EU will have an impact on expert discussions on the topics of religious freedom, the legal status of the church, its role in the society, and thus also on the legal provisions governing these issues," said Moravčíková.
3. Nov 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila