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Pope Benedict Pays First Visit To Secular Czech Republic

  • Claire Bigg

Pope Benedict XVI and Czech President Vaclav Havel at Prague's Ruzyne Airport on September 26.

Pope Benedict XVI and Czech President Vaclav Havel at Prague's Ruzyne Airport on September 26.

PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in the Czech Republic for a three-day pilgrimage aimed at reviving flagging religious faith in the ex-communist state.

"Now that religious freedom has been restored, I call upon all the citizens of this republic to rediscover the Christian traditions which have shaped their culture," he said at a welcoming ceremony in Prague's airport.

The 82-year-old pontiff, however, was likely to get a lukewarm reception from most Czechs on his first visit to the country as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Czech Republic, with its long history of religious strife, is one of Europe's most secular states and one of the few that still have not ratified treaties on relations with the Vatican.

The country ranked second in a 2005 Eurobarometer tally of Europe's least religious nations, following Estonia. The poll found only 19 percent of Czechs believed in God.

Benedict has often warned that modern culture is pushing religion out of people's lives in an increasingly secular Europe.

Kishore Jayabalan, a former Vatican official who now heads the ecumenical Acton Institute think tank in Rome, said the Czech Republic is at the heart of Benedict's message.

"The Czech Republic represents the center of European secularism, where the Church has really suffered not only persecution but also indifference among its own believers," Jayabalan told RFE/RL. "So if Pope Benedict hopes to revive, or restart the revival of European Christianity, the Czech Republic is the perfect place to address the problem."

Full Itinerary

Benedict visited the Prague church that holds the "Infant Jesus of Prague," a statuette worshipped by Catholics around the world since the 17th century. He later met with President Vaclav Klaus, together with other top officials and foreign diplomats, before holding an evening mass at St. Vitus, the imposing cathedral of Prague's Hradcany Castle.

Benedict then traveled to the southeastern city of Brno, in the traditional Catholic heartland of Moravia, where he served Sunday Mass to a crowd of more than 100,000 faithful.

His visit comes as former communist countries in Europe mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, and he's expected to talk about the legacy of decades of religious persecution under communist rule.

Wary Listeners

The pope may also address some of the Czechs' historical grudges against the Vatican.

"I'm sure you'll see some recognition of history," Jayabalan said. "Whether he uses the term 'apology' or not I can't say; it seems like once the pope does apologize for one thing he's being asked to apologize for ever more things all the time. I don't think personally he has a problem with that, but he doesn't want to make that the focus of his trip."

Jan Hus, a 15th-century reformer, became a national martyr when he was burned at the stake by Catholics in Constance.

Many Czechs also resent the Catholic Church for backing the Habsburg dynasty, which dominated Czech lands for more than four centuries until 1918.

The Vatican has said Benedict won't discuss a long-standing property dispute with the Czech government during his visit. But the issue may come up at scheduled talks between Prime Minister Jan Fischer and the Vatican's Secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone.

The Vatican has been battling for almost two decades to regain St. Vitus Cathedral, which the Communists nationalized along with other church property.

The Supreme Court ruled in March to leave the cathedral under state ownership.

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz contributed to this report
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​


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