In all the articles about last week’s 50th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Prague, few took note of one of its enduring scars: widespread atheism. Some may be surprised to learn that the Czech people are the most irreligious people in Europe, not just because of decades of government-sponsored atheism, but because of centuries of government-enforced religion.
When Communist officials first came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, undermining and eradicating religion became a top priority. The Marxists tried to co-opt the Roman Catholic Church with a “patriotic” organization, loyal to the regime, known as Catholic Action. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.) However, the Vatican quickly condemned the government’s creation.
The government began paying priests’ salaries – something not a single priest refused – in order to win their loyalty. The Office of Religious Affairs placed some of its loyal priests in positions of ecclesiastical authority. Yet the bishops maintained fidelity.
Failing at counterfeiting, the government resorted to confiscation. Prague ordered all monasteries closed on April 13, 1950, resulting in a massive seizure of church property. The communist government plundered 429 buildings belonging to male monastic orders, 670 buildings belonging to female orders, some 2,000 works of art, another 2,000 historical artifacts, and 1.8 million books. This does not include the massive destruction of precious historical items, carried out on such a scale that even former Czechoslovakian Prime Minister Zdeněk Fierlinger lamented it.
Authorities then forcibly merged the Byzantine Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church (with strong ties to Moscow) on April 28, 1950. The number of Orthodox increased many times over – at least, for the moment.
However, the Prague Spring brought talk of lessening religious oppression. Alexander Dubček’s government again recognized the Byzantine Catholic Church on June 13, 1968. Of the 210 parishes to vote that year, only five remained Orthodox. An estimated 90 percent of Eastern Rite Catholics had returned to their church home by 1971. (For a detailed account, see this article.)
Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church continues to suffer from the government’s “pro-Orthodox” policy to this day.
“Force is never a victory”
“The Communists, both yours [Russian] and ours, were always enemies of the Church,” a former Orthodox Archbishop of Prague told a Russian media outlet.
When it came to the Byzantine Catholic Church, the Communists sought “only liquidation,” the then-archbishop said in 2011. “We Orthodox know that such force is never a victory.”
“That the Czechoslovakian party members supposedly helped the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia was only their cunning maneuver,” he said. “In fact, the Communists only injured the work of Orthodoxy.”